An Education-Centered Approach to 21st Century School Design

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By Elizabeth C. Martinez

Traditional classroom settings are a thing of the past. We are moving forward to a future with 21st century learning environments being transformed by how students learn and professionals teach.

Students are now more technologically adept than ever and a growing number of schools are incorporating laptops and tablets in the classroom. Twenty-first century school designs provide versatile classroom configurations and open spaces for a variety of learning styles, such as small group, individual, large group, hands-on and independent study.

“As traditional teaching pedagogy evolves because of changes in technology and learning modalities, so should facilities,” said ERO Architects President Eli Ochoa, PE, AIA, CBJ. “Our children need to be able to connect to resources at anytime, anywhere for ‘anyhow’ learning whether in the building, outside the school or for distance learning. They need to be in a space where they can have collaborative interaction and active learning opportunities. These are important factors for developing well-rounded citizens.”

By incorporating movable walls, movable white boards or digital boards, and modular furniture, learning environments are easily adaptable to the needs of students.
Along with flexible seating and access to a wireless network, 21st century schools embody specific design principles to help learning and creativity flow, including bursts of color, an abundance of natural light, classroom courtyards and cafes; and energy efficiency and sustainability.
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“Color is known to evoke creativity and daylighting is important for optimum student performance,” explained Ochoa. “Open and airy spaces inside or outside, like courtyards, are where students can gather with their friends, study or even meet with teachers is the new 21st century norm.”

Designs that mirror a collegiate environment are another 21st century design opportunity. A college campus style and other 21st century learning environment design elements were applied to the Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy at Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District. This freshman academy is the Rio Grande Valley’s newest high school and is set to open in fall 2013.

Together with Harlingen CISD stakeholders, ERO Architects developed a plan with a 21st century vision that emphasized integrating innovative strategies and designs to enhance student achievement.

“Today’s kids are digital learners. They take in the world via the filter of computing devices,” added Ochoa.
The school supports project-based learning in the five Achieve Texas Career clusters, which are education and training; health science; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); business management and administration; and liberal arts.

“A school that looks and feels like a college campus is a sure way to enhance college-readiness,” added Ochoa. “At the center of the campus is an intimate courtyard making it a perfect place for social interacting, group learning and quiet reflection.”

“The curriculum and design of the Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy ensures that our students will have special attention during this important transition in their academic careers,” said Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Flores. “To put our students at the forefront, we must embrace change and innovation. The Academy is one step toward completing our district’s transformation for the benefit of student success in the 21st century.”

Learning spaces and the shape of education will continue to evolve. Those involved in the planning process can aspire design schools of the future that will accommodate ever-evolving technology and education that will shape students, faculty and the community for years to come.