Student Engagement in Action
Designing flexibility for 21st century learning has become the industry standard in K-12 education facilities. As a design professional, I am accustomed to exercising creativity not only in design, but also how we allocate budget. This is exactly the scenario at Blue Valley North High School, where DLR Group was enlisted to inspire a class of 20 graphic design students to take a nondescript arts corridor in their school and turn it into a collaborative learning environment. The students of Blue Valley North High School, along with their instructor Alison Crane, wanted this space to be a place for impromptu pinups, collaborative conversations, and group interaction. Furthering that notion, they felt this type of environment could be enhanced by incorporating elements of a maker space. My colleague Kirby Thomas and I embraced this opportunity to mentor students and improve an area within their school.
Step 1: Inspire. While we realized physically altering the location of walls was not an option, our role was to show the students the possibilities beyond the walls of what they knew at Blue Valley North. We encouraged students to achieve maximum flexibility through furniture choices. During one planning session Kirby and I displayed imagery from furniture giants and DLR Group's design portfolio, speaking to the commonalities among truly flexible environments. Mobile furniture was essential to the successful adaptation of this existing space.
Step 2: Plan. After the students worked on their plan for a few months, Ms. Crane invited Kirby and I to observe design proposals to reimagine the existing arts corridor. The class of 20 took turns presenting their ideas and how they envisioned this space could be adapted as a collaborative learning environment. Taking to heart many of the design elements we had inspired, the students really honed in on three main items: mobile furniture, maker-spaces, and writable surfaces.
The students had clearly done their research, with evidence to back up every decision. The school principal, who also attended the presentation, immediately saw the positive effects of the project—beyond the finished outcome—and offered to purchase all of the marker boards for the new collaborative space.
Step 3: Implement. Students applied to receive a $5,000 grant from the Blue Valley Educational Foundation to fundthe revitalization of the arts hallway. The grant allowed students to purchase flexible seating for the space, remodel an existing office into conference space, and purchase a prototyping cart equipped with tools to safely implement maker features into their new environment.
In summation, three distinct collaborative spaces were created. First, a conference room acts as a think tank space for students to break away and work together on group projects. Second, a number of white board-pinup areas along the halls support project boards, brainstorming sessions, and host group critiques. Finally, a maker space hosts flexible furniture and a prototyping cart. This space gives students a new medium to develop projects, whether that’s making an art installation or designing a robot.
The graphic design class at Blue Valley North demonstrates a genuine desire from students to incorporate collaborative learning environments into their schools. An effort that began in September 2016 to turn unused space into something useful has sparked a movement throughout the school, resulting in another unused classroom’s conversion to a collaborative makerspace this coming spring. For me, this project validates our premise to listen to and engage students in the design process. They know which spaces and design features will be successful in their schools.