Learning is a Two-way Street

After the international SchoolsNEXT Design Competition was held recently in Philadelphia, a group of Lake Oswego junior high schoolers came home with some extra luggage: the grand prize. That was big news for Project Architect Robert Allen, too—he’s been mentoring them throughout the competition design process since its start last fall.

Ten students from Lake Oswego Junior High School participated in the competition, which this year involved more than 3,000 students from nearly 100 school districts in the US and abroad. The program is sponsored by the education architecture organization A4LE (Association for Learning Environments—formerly known as CEFPI, or the Council of Educational Facility Planners International). Behind the alphabet soup of acronyms and long-winded names are creative, curious professional architects like Robert, who head back to school each year to help students learn about architecture and guide them through the design of their own project, start to finish.

Robert has volunteered through the A4LE program as a mentor for many years now, but this is the first time he’s been associated with the team winning the top prize. Not that winning is the only reason for being involved; far from it. For Robert, it’s a chance to be in touch with the enthusiasm, energy, and insight of young students—who are, after all, the “end users” of the K-12 school buildings he and the DOWA-IBI Group specialize in designing. It’s a unique market, and Robert relishes its complexities and challenges. But getting out of the office each week for a few hours in junior high school helps him keep a fresh perspective, and keep learning from the people who spend so much time in the buildings he’s helping bring to life.

For the students, it’s a chance to educate Robert and others about what today’s students need to thrive in a school environment, as well as to learn about the profession of architecture and show off their creativity on an international stage. A typical student, from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade, spends about 14,000 hours in school. Most of those schools are at least as old as the students themselves. New school buildings don’t get built very often! So when they do, they better be topnotch and built to last, not just functionally but in social, experiential ways as well. Students in the SchoolsNext program get to contribute to what the architectural practitioners know about the requirements and preferences of today’s young people.

The SchoolsNext website describes the Lake Oswego students’ project:
“Excellence and innovation meet in this eco-friendly student-centered 21st century learning environment! Demonstrating great purpose and passion, the Team Sailors wouldn’t settle for anything less in the collaborative project based-spaces and maker spaces that comprise the Best of the Best school.”

The eight children on the Lake Oswego team worked with their teacher, Wendy Hinderhofer, in after school sessions throughout the school year. Some of the features their Best of the Best school sound pretty compelling indeed:
“Holodeck for virtual field trips and extended learning, vertical green walls for safety and security, CO2 sequestering concrete, a Tree of Knowledge observation deck and flexible classroom spaces. New technologies were applied to ensure safety and a better traffic flow.”

Most importantly, though, for the students, the A4LE program and SchoolsNext Competition is a fantastic way to dive into a profession they might be curious about, and get a sense of what it’s like. And what do they think now? Do any of them want to be an architect? Time will tell, but they certainly are well prepared.

(Photo: Eric Weiss/Eric Weiss/Schrader Group Architecture)

Kristin Belz

Kristin Belz is the Marketing Coordinator for DOWA-IBI Group Architects, in Portland, OR. As a writer with a Masters in Architecture, she believes that what and how we build reveals our character as a society. She relishes working in the Portland office, with its portfolio of education projects and focus on Learning+, because she loves telling the stories of the people and innovations behind school buildings that help make the world a better place.

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