Unlock Learning

Everything moves. This is the first thing you notice about the new Colonel Smith Middle School in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Chairs, desks and even interactive whiteboards are all mobile. Throughout the school day, teachers and students constantly arrange and rearrange the learning environment to suit their needs.

The model followed by Colonel Smith, which employs a STEM curriculum, is one that has become popular across the nation. As project-based learning programs and hand-held devices flourish, instructional flexibility is now a necessity, not a luxury. Choice — of space, of learning style — is the new watchword. Education itself has become unlocked.

This new approach to education requires a new kind of educational facility design. To provide the necessary level of flexibility, school districts and their design professionals must increasingly consider furniture and equipment as a central component of any design solution.

Integrated Interiors

In the old approach to school design, architects would create the “box” and interior designers would fill it. In many cases, the job of selecting furniture and equipment fell to purchasing agents, who would invariably gravitate to commodity classroom desks and chairs, usually the lowest-cost options. A chair is a chair. A desk is a desk.

Or is it?

During the planning and design of Colonel Smith Middle School, furniture and equipment played a key role. The owner knew that STEM curriculum and use of hand-held learning devices would have a significant impact on the form and function of the educational facility.
From the initial design concepts, the owner and design team explored furniture and equipment that would provide the necessary mobility. In an inquiry-based, interdisciplinary environment, students and teachers need to quickly reconfigure furniture, or just pick up and move to another space. Students grouped around a video display require compact, self-
contained workstations. Understanding these considerations allowed the team to fully integrate furniture with the overall design concept.

Colonel Smith is made up of a series of open learning environments. There are very few interior walls. In each academic wing, flexible learning areas (classrooms) with operable glass walls surround a central Student Collaboration Area.

The mobility of the school’s chairs, desks, tables, teaching stations and interactive whiteboards allows any part of the building to become a classroom or small group room. At Colonel Smith, students and teachers establish boundaries through their use of the furniture, rather than boundaries being provided only by fixed walls. 

However, it is important to note that bricks and mortar still play a key role. Supporting a project-based curriculum is about more than providing a big-box area and filling it with furniture. Design elements such as lighting, wall surfaces and fixed technology hot spots provide a valuable hierarchy of space.

While students and teachers require choice, without a fully integrated architecture and interior design solution, the learning environment becomes incomprehensible.

A Home Away From Home

Anecdotal evidence suggests that independent learning requires a higher comfort level from furniture and equipment. In fact, many of the most successful school designs look more like a living room than a classroom.

Providing a variety of seating options is extremely important. Soft seating, mobile chairs and collaborative workstations create a layered environment that is comfortable and accommodating. Students can curl up with their tablet or quickly gather around a shared workstation.

Even little strategies, such as varying the height of desks and stools, will go a long way toward keeping students interested and engaged.

The Innovation Challenge 

Change is always a challenge for teachers and administrators. New furniture and equipment often accompanies a new or renovated educational facility. Perhaps individuals are even being asked to adopt a new way of teaching.

For this reason, it is important to make sure that the educational vision is shared by every team member. Providing training on how to use new furniture and equipment is an important part of this process.

Long before school began, the Colonel Smith design team brought chair samples into the old middle school building. Students and teachers were allowed to test drive the furniture, ask questions and provide feedback.

One important benefit of many new classroom chairs is that they allow students to tilt, shift or move from side-to-side. Prior to Colonel Smith’s opening, teachers attended several training sessions that addressed, among other things, the new chairs. Teachers learned the ergonomic and psychological concepts of the chairs’ design.

Such training exercises constitute a kind of educational commissioning. In many cases, faculty and administrators in new buildings revert back to what they know. By fully explaining the educational vision and design concepts — including why the chairs tilt — school districts improve the chances that the building operates as intended and that the investment is put to its best use.

Looking Ahead
What lies ahead for school furniture and equipment? Based on current trends, school districts should expect furniture and equipment to continue to play an important role in the educational process.

The current emphasis on science-based programs means that it is important to consider exterior furniture in your overall plans and budget. Use benches and chairs to create outdoor spaces that encourage collaboration and the observation of nature. In warm climates, shading elements are crucial. Make it comfortable and inviting, and students and teachers will come.

On the interior, the major furniture manufacturers are increasingly acknowledging the impact of hand-held devices. A number of new desks and chairs are powered-enabled to allow charging of tablets or smart phones.

Another evolving concept is the bookless classroom. While this trend is growing in popularity, even the most progressive school districts often experience a significant period of transition. For this reason, it is important to select furniture and equipment that provides enough storage for books, paper and the other staples of a traditional school environment.

No matter what educational program you employ — from STEM to STEAM to somewhere in between — furniture and equipment is most effective when it acts as a fully-integrated part of the learning environment. Even within a traditional school with double-loaded corridors, mobile furniture offers a level of flexibility that is invaluable.

The key to success is to ask yourself: “What tools will our students and teachers need to succeed now and in the future?” Answer correctly and you will unlock a world of possibilities. 

Richard Clutter, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP
, is president of Emc2 Group Architects Planners, the Architect of Record for Colonel Smith Middle School. Charles Tyler, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, is a principal with Fanning Howey, the Design Architect for Colonel Smith Middle School.