Friday, October 12, 2012

21st Century Schools

Do you remember the structural design of your elementary school? How about the interior of your high school English classroom? If you can actually remember back that far, there's a good chance rigid desks, blinding fluorescents, and immobile chalkboards occupy a better part of your educational memory. While these memories might be the iconic symbols of K-12 education, they don't necessarily help out our modern students.

Six Principles of 21st Century School Curriculum
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analyzed the designs of past school buildings and came to the conclusion that they simply do not foster an environment conducive to modern learning. A recent article from the USACE explains how evidence-based design improves student performance and how they are working with the DoDEA to implement a new approach to education design which will produce more productive learning environments known as 21st Century Schools.
These schools are designed to help students and teachers work together on projects, learn at a personalized pace, and strive towards real results that can be applied to lessons well outside of the classroom. Together with the USACE and other A/E/C firms around the country, Oculus is working on several projects which will help bring more 21st Century schools into the American education system.

When large schools started to become an institution in American life, they were designed with factory-esque efficiency in mind (no doubt coinciding with other structures of the 19th Century). This often corralled students into small, teacher-centric classrooms which focused on a strict, heavily dictated curriculum. Today's 21st Century School curriculum is designed to focus on students, their academic projects, and learning in a group atmosphere. Traditional schools were simply not designed to handle the current technology, group-oriented, and individualized curriculum that is essential in the development of young, 21st Century minds.

In order to facilitate greater communication between students and teachers, a community style design works better than the traditional blocked off and stuffy classroom model. Instead of isolating the learning experience, 21st Century Design incorporates hubs and communities as spaces which not only allow students to share knowledge in a better group setting, it also allows less experienced instructors to gain valuable career insight and techniques from more experienced members of the staff.

Community Design 21st Century School Classroom
A Community-Style Learning Hub from Oculus' Delalio Elementary Project

Other 21st Century Design elements include plenty of windows for natural lighting, reduced external noise in in hubs and communities with better acoustics, adjustable and mobile furniture, and much improved air circulation. This transformation, as described by the 21st Century School website, helps schools become more than just buildings by making them living, breathing "nerve centers" for knowledge.

One more important aspect of 21st Century Schools is that they all must meet a USGBC LEED Silver Certification. This certification requires that the buildings meet certain environmentally sustainable goals such as using materials that meet low VOC requirements, using rapidly renewable materials and recycled content that is post and pre-consumer, selecting items manufactured within a 500 mile radius, and flooring with a FloorScore certification. Not only do the LEED standards make sure that the building is green, they help teach students about the importance of sustainable living, an important lesson for a well-rounded education.

The USACE article goes on to tell about several schools being developed with the 21st Century Design philosophy, which includes the renovation and addition to West Point Middle School in which Oculus played a large part by providing interior design, Signage & Wayfinding, and Furniture Layout services. Oculus is also working on the comprehensive interior design for two other DoDEA schools, Delalio Elementary in North Carolina and Barkley Elementary in Kentucky, which include more extensive services such as Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment (FF&E) selection and procurement.

A Sample Layout from Barkley Elementary School that separates different neighborhoods and hubs into the different landscapes found across Kentucky

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