Designing for the Future, Today
Applied learning goes beyond secondary education and encourages students to become lifelong learners. It’s more than standard curriculum in English, math, social studies; it provides real-world benefits by offering students industry accreditation, leadership development, dual enrollment, peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher collaboration, and lab experience where they can translate theoretical practice into practical application. These programs, which are steadily growing in popularity because of their ability to engage and connect students to opportunities for professional success, are also redefining the way we design learning spaces. From the beginning stages of a project to the final outcome, we are seeing a shift in how we collaborate with our clients to provide the kinds of facilities that meet the needs of an ever-changing student population.
How Design Can Support Applied Learning
Clients want student-centric schools, however they do not always know exactly what those schools look like for their district, including which programs to focus on or how to design the spaces to support evolving programs. As educational designers, we work to gain a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of our clients to help guide them in the right direction. We do this by performing extensive research through in-context immersion practices; facility tours; and individual, group, and expert interviews that help give our clients and the design team a better idea of what’s possible.
One of our greatest tools in the design process that identifies the challenges and arrives at solutions is scenario planning. Much like gaming, scenario planning asks participants to imagine all the different ways they could use a space for learning. This process helps create a truly adaptive environment because it asks users to immerse themselves in places that do not yet exist, using their imagination to visualize learning spaces, and envisioning multiple scenarios for how these spaces might be used. Scenario planning paves a path to strategic planning for flexible, long-term plans and solutions, allowing the spaces we design to adapt to the changing needs of students.
As we translate our client’s vision into concepts, we engage in systems thinking to help us understand how varying factors can come together in complex ways to create surprising futures. This practice allows for the inclusion of concepts that are difficult to formalize: novel insights about the future, deep shifts in values, unprecedented regulations or inventions. Systems thinking used in conjunction with scenario planning guides our work towards more plausible scenario story lines and allows us to give substance to our ideas as functional yet adaptable solutions for our clients.
Discovery High School: Applied Learning Design in Action
DLR Group applied scenario and systems planning and systems thinking during our work on the new Discovery High School in Camas, Wash. The team from Camas School District started the process with an evolving framework for what they wanted their curriculum to be, and embarked on a journey of discovery through tours, information collecting, and scenario planning. Everyone was encouraged to imagine how we could create an environment that could truly adapt to changing technologies and evolve to stay relevant to the community.
What has emerged from this process is a wholly unique high school designed completely around project-based learning. The new program centers on collaborative, integrated learning teams with a STEAM focus. Across the school, learning teams will be integrated based on common practices like design theory, research methods, inquiry cycles, and showcasing/demonstrating learning events. Learning teams will develop unique identities that evolve based on student and teacher interest, but the school will all be connected by a common student-developed STEAM theme that unites them each school year. Students will make strong connections within and beyond the school with their peers, staff, and the community.
The 89,000-square-foot facility offers a variety of spaces in which students can switch between different learning styles, or work within them simultaneously:
- The Research and Development (R+D) Pod is a suite of core learning spaces where 150 students will spend the majority of their day. It is the heart of the collaborative learning experience, and includes studio spaces where students can research and work in teams; classrooms for instruction and small group collaboration; project labs that allow for hands-on learning; a commons area for large group gatherings; and smaller, quiet “think tank” areas.
- The Fab Lab is a crucial component of the hands-on learning experience for all 600 students. Managed and supervised by specialist educators, this lab exists as a place where students can go to receive guidance on more complex projects and instruction on the complex tools required to accomplish the project.
- The Mixing Chamber is at the center of the culture and community of the school. It is the open, visual connector to major learning spaces including a research and reading lounge, physical fitness/recreation space, dining, and servery. The mixing chamber is centrally located with most programs radiating from this highly active space. Program elements are arranged inside the volume similar to an airport concourse.
- The Research Node offers students quiet spaces for small group or individual research and media studies.
Camas School District realized there were many ways to deliver project-based learning. They did not begin the design process committed to a singular way of creating their new high school. There was a clear understanding that they were not fully embracing the goals of their program unless their design process was self-directed in the same way students would be learning through a project-based approach.
DLR Group’s design is formed around the educational model of project-based learning, but the building is planned to be able to adapt to more traditional learning modalities should it need to in the future. Flexibility and adaptability are executed throughout—a product of our collective understanding that throughout the life of the school building, project-based learning will continue to evolve and shift. It will not look the same tomorrow as it does today.
The true test of our design will be when the school opens in 2018. We all know a lot can change in education facility design in two years, and I look forward to seeing how the flexible spaces transform between now and when the doors officially open.
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