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There’s a Revolution Underway in Education

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Before considering the multitude of implications for the design professions and building product manufacturers from the revolution in education that is currently underway, let’s first breeze through the mundane demographic details.

In the U.S., the number of individuals in the 4-to-17-year-old age cohort that is specific to school attendance from kindergarten through grade 12 will be flat over the next five years before it begins climbing again with an upward slope that will be ever so gentle.

The population of the 18-to-26-year-old age cohort, which has traditionally been the primary source of enrolments at colleges and universities, is set to fall slightly out to the early 2020s, then remain level or unexciting for another fifteen years.

In Canada, there will be more movement in the two series.

The slope of the cohort driving enrolments in the younger grades will be trending up nicely over the next two decades.

For higher education north of the border, there will be a decline in the curve out to 2025, after which it will reverse course and charge ahead at a strong pace for an extended period of time, until about 2050.

Those are the bare bones of the matter, – i.e., the structural underpinnings − but they don’t begin to capture the enormous changes that are taking place right now in the teaching and learning process and which are beginning to overflow into the design of educational facilities.

Students, educators and business leaders, aided by technological advances, are re-imagining the pupil-teacher relationship. How can there not be a need for new approaches when children are learning in such novel and fast-paced ways?

Consider some obvious examples. Geography courses taught old-fashioned style, by rote, lose relevance when students can visit anywhere in the world through virtual reality? And how better to keep them engaged than through a methodology that’s another version of game-playing?

Who needs traditional libraries when there is such a wealth of data available over the Internet?

Sure, purists will continue to say, “Be wary of the accuracy of information found through a Wikipedia search.” But browsers make it fun to conduct research on a wealth of subject matter.

It’s left up to the individual to gain a sense of what to take at face value and what to discard.

The game of “Trivial Pursuit”, so popular when I was attending university, has been made irrelevant, since most subject matter has become readily available through search engines.

There’s no longer an excuse to not know everything. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not to the degree one might hastily suppose. Certainly with respect to surface material, such as the secret lives of celebrities, a simple Siri request will suffice.

Education is no longer being contained within four walls. The World Wide Web has filled an obvious need, with on-line universities offering courses and degrees. The appeal is readily apparent: lower-cost tuition; lectures by experts who would otherwise be inaccessible; and flexible scheduling of study times and report writing.

Promotion of collaboration among students is now seen as an essential ingredient in producing good global citizens who will be more socially and environmentally conscious. Some schools are out front in accommodating the new realities.

High Tech High in Chula Vista (HTHCV) California, south of San Diego, features walls that are mostly glass partitions. Students in one class are able to see what students in other classes are doing. Also, the partitions can be moved, to create alternative learning spaces.

HTHCV began as a single charter school, established by a coalition of San Diego business leaders and educators, serving 600 students in grades 9 to 12. Its mission statement speaks of integrating the liberal arts with hands-on technical learning. The goal has been to emphasize ‘mindfulness, cooperation, perseverance and compassion.’

The vision of HTHCV’s founders has now been expanded to 13 schools in three locations − five high schools, four middle schools and four elementary schools.

The American Architectural Foundation (AAF), through its ‘Design for Learning’ initiative, has also assumed a leadership role in building better educational facilities.

The AAF’s ‘Great Schools by Design’ website showcases a video on the LEED gold-certified Rosa Parks elementary school in Portland Oregon.

The design of the Rosa Parks School has largely eliminated halls and separations. Flooring has been chosen to encourage group sit-downs and discussions.

Windows open to allow in fresh air. A deliberate attempt has been made to minimize the transition from moving outside to inside.

Every effort has been made so that students and teachers will feel comfortable and special and as if they have not strayed far from their homes.

Solar panels provide power generation. Sustainable building products have been used throughout the structure.

The work of the AAF is substantially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has a special interest in working to transform the learning experience.

There’s another obvious avenue for discovering where future school design is headed. Simply ask the question, “What are new engineering facilities including in their lay-outs?”

As part of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Toronto, the newly-built Bergeron Center for Engineering Excellence seeks to produce ‘renaissance-style’ civil, mechanical and electrical engineering graduates.

The faculty’s aim is to produce working individuals who embrace environmental preservation, minimization of energy usage and beauty in style, while also delivering functionality.

At the Bergeron Center, the students have ‘the window offices’ while professors are relegated to interior spaces. The intent is to nudge the teaching staff out of its caves’. As this leads to more mingling, there will be an elevation in the number of ‘teachable moments’.

Students and their mentors are encouraged to share ideas and swap notes on whiteboards that have been hung almost everywhere.

The course content isn’t limited to engineering. It also includes the law and business, as well as excursions into the humanities. There’s a fervent belief that an interdisciplinary approach will serve best to produce graduating classes more in tune with today’s always-in-flux times.

An ‘Images’ search through Google of the Bergeron Centre reveals that its exterior has been designed to appear cloud-like, in keeping with its geographical position on a Canadian campus and supposedly representing ‘ambiguity’.

Surely it’s not serendipity, though, that the word ‘cloud’ has also become synonymous with the latest developments in the high-tech sector.

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