What the Classroom Can Learn on a Field Trip

There’s a good reason that museums make ideal destinations for class field trips. Museums are places of “informal education,” where the visitor encounters programs and artifacts which may have the power to inspire, or may even embed themselves in memory in a way that lessons taught to us in a traditional learning setting cannot. One could argue that the field trip represents a bargain — that dollar for dollar, the museum has a greater lasting impact on the student.

Since it is impossible to separate the effect of the museum on the student from the museum setting itself, it is only natural that school administrators and educators might begin to consider how techniques used in designing museums might be incorporated into new schools projects. One elementary school in the Casper, Wyo., area represents a significant potential shift in the way our school systems approach design; that school, Summit Elementary, presents a strong case for museum-influenced planning.

Dr. Anne LaPlante, principal of Summit Elementary, boasts that the K-5 school, which opened only last year, is considered to be one of the most successful in the Natrona County School District (NCSD). “Not only does the design enhance the quality of how students and teachers interact, but it fosters the potential for learning opportunities between and around classroom spaces,” says Dr. LaPlante. She notes also that Summit is being proposed as a statewide and even a national model for elementary school planning.

Why Model Schools After Museums?
Summit's champions — a group that includes Dr. LaPlante, teachers, staff, parents, administrators and no shortage of former naysayers who, during planning phases, criticized the school design for its most innovative attributes — would argue that the “museum approach” deserves much of the credit for the school’s enormous and rapid success. So what is it about museums that schools should learn from and apply to their own interior spaces?

To begin with, as places of informal education, museums do not attempt to directly "upload" information and facts to the student, but instead interpret their offerings through a participatory, interactive experience. At their best, museums present a curated narrative — a story — which is informed not only through the content presented but through the space itself, as well. The effect on museum visitors is powerful, with each person learning at his or her own pace and with context provided not only by the curatorial and education team but also by the physical environment itself.

Additionally, museums have fewer enclosed spaces, and more open rooms connected to others through unobstructed portals. This kind of floor plan offers museum visitors the opportunity to have their own unique experience of the offerings, and the opportunity to interact at will with museum employees and other visitors. Movement through the space encourages interaction and sharing, augmenting the lasting impact of the curated program.

Working on an earlier museum-inspired learning environment, developed for the headquarters and visitor center at New York State’s Mohonk Preserve, helped crystallize the philosophy behind the "museum approach" for Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA. There, the owner asked Skolnick, who had also been engaged as designer of the museum exhibits, specifically for a museum-inspired “pull approach.”

What’s the “pull approach?” Skolnick explains: “In developing exhibits, particularly highly interpretive ones, you have to know who your audience is, what are their interests, and what are the ideal entry points, as we call them. In this sense, museums are very market-oriented. Schools, on the other hand, are often curriculum- and standards-oriented." Research shows that this “push approach” focused on education standards often creates resistance to new information in those being taught. Knowledge gained in a museum, studies show, feels more like authentic learning and is less likely forgotten.

When Kelly Eastes, chief PR officer for NCSD, made a trip to Denver in 2008 for a museum industry event, he had this very idea in mind. “Museums are places you want to go to,” says Eastes. “It seemed natural that the feelings of excitement evoked in museums could be introduced to formal learning environments, with practical, unmistakable benefits for students and for the community. Why build another school with an institutional atmosphere and traditional double-loaded corridors?"

Kindred Spirits
Eastes’s visit to the museum association conference was fortuitous; there he would encounter the Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, and a kindred spirit. Speaking with designers from the multidisciplinary firm, Eastes learned that Skolnick's team of architects, and exhibit designers and museum-trained “interpreters” had cultivated a unique approach — to distill the intentions of the museum’s stakeholders into a narrative, and then use that narrative as the design team’s “north star for project planning.”

Skolnick considers this his firm’s overarching mission and philosophy, and calls it “design as interpretation.” Soon after the meeting, Eastes and the NCSD enjoined Skolnick to design Summit Elementary.

Skolnick's project team, which included as executive architect the Fort Collins, Colo.-based firm RB+B Architects, Inc., focused first on divining what NCSD, as well as Casper's parents and teachers, believed to be essential to the education of their children. Overwhelmingly the community expressed a desire to make the region’s history and heritage a part of the design process. The designers and the community agreed upon an overall theme of "convergence," based on Casper’s history as a place of historic trail crossings as well as the modern notion of an educational philosophy in which school subject matter and curricula are taught in an integrated fashion. With this theme to guide them, Skolnick's team set to work.

Achieving a synthesis of physical space and conceptual narrative in a public school’s interiors seemed a bit far-fetched for many in Natrona County. Yet the final result demonstrated practical implications and benefits that are unarguable.

Saving Money and Space
To begin with, all of the facility's common areas are separated acoustically from neighboring rooms by ceilings specially designed to dampen the movement of sound between spaces. A class in one space will be separated from a casual conversation in the next apparently only by empty space, yet neither will intrude on or disturb the other. Because walls are not needed to separate spaces, there are no halls or corridors at Summit; instead, there are places of convergence referred to simply as living rooms, complete with furniture for lounging and discussion.

“In just one of the school’s spaces, we can have P.E., lunch and music programs operating simultaneously, and none of them interfere with each other,” says Eastes, describing Summit's radically reinterpreted version of the conventional gymnatorium-style multipurpose space. “The space eats the noise.” The combined uses also have contributed to benefits for teaching that reflect the theme of convergence. In one novel move, for example, the architects combined art classrooms and science labs into a space dubbed the “creativity studio.”

Elsewhere within and outside of the facility, there are “interpretive enhancements” that Skolnick’s team developed for their pedagogical and design benefits. For example, a wind turbine is currently being installed outside of one of the large ground-level picture windows, where three interactive stations allow students to observe the modern windmill while tracking power and wind data. In the gymnatorium, an interpretive floor graphic of Wyoming is planned for installation next.

Efficient and Inspiring
While Summit Elementary cost about the same to build as a typical design-build school project, the design boasts significantly more usable square footage, according to the architects. Between replacing corridors with the multifunction living rooms and by creating truly multipurpose learning environments wherever possible, Summit’s space management is a bargain.

Summit also makes best use of natural daylight, creating a healthier learning environment and saving on operating costs for energy. In some areas, this means large picture windows that integrate the surrounding landscape and wildlife into the daily life of the school; in others, there is clerestory fenestration that bounces light deep into interior spaces.

Perhaps most important, Summit’s user-friendly and healthy interior spaces have created a place for enjoyment and a point of pride for the Casper community. Eastes likes to boast that Summit’s students often run from their bus to the school, which he believes demonstrates their love for the school and of learning generally. And Eastes believes that the school design fosters this love in the grownups as well. “Parents stick around all the time,” he says. “They have tons of parent volunteers, and parents who just want to spend a few minutes with their kids in the school before they go to work for the day.”

More volunteers? Another bargain.

Chris Sullivan is principal and Adam Sullivan is an associate with C.C. Sullivan, a marketing and content agency focused on the design, construction and architecture markets. They can be contacted at www.ccsullivan.com.