Real-World Learning Environments

In the past, the difference between a K-12 school, a university facility and an office building was plain to see, quite literally. Each building type employed a unique approach to spatial layout and interior presentation. With the exception of vocational education — which was too often relegated to second-class status — a school was a school, an office was an office … and never the two did meet. As a result, students moved from one stage of life-long learning to another, constantly adapting to a new environments along the way.

With the rise of project-based learning, the lines between secondary education, higher education and workforce environments have become increasingly blurred. In fact, many school districts are discovering that the best way to prepare students for the next step of their lives is to replicate the types of environments they are likely to find.

The Milan Center for Innovative Studies (MCIS) in Milan, Mich., is a perfect example of the cross-pollination currently taking place among a variety of building types. Built as an addition to the existing Milan High School, the center offers a project-based learning environment designed to help high school seniors transition to higher education or the workforce.

In keeping with this mission, the interior environment models itself after the real-world experiences student will have after high school. The result is an environment that functions, feels and looks different than a traditional school. In fact, one of the most common remarks heard from first-time visitors to MCIS is, “This doesn’t look like any high school that I have ever seen.” 

A new framework

The differences between the Milan Center for Innovative Studies and a traditional high school extend beyond the use of modern finishes and furniture. The entire arrangement of the 23,000-square-foot building is designed to support the project-based learning curriculum. MCIS faculty members do not “own” a particular classroom. Instead, a series of specialized labs surround a central collaborative space dubbed the Innovation Zone. The proximity of a variety of different learning environments allows students and faculty to easily flow from space to space, accessing resources as needed.

This type of arrangement is more typically found in higher education, a fact that is not lost on the MCIS community. Students often compliment the school by saying, “It doesn’t feel like a normal classroom.” High praise, indeed, coming from high school seniors.

The flexible organization of the building not only creates a sense of something new and exciting; it also makes the best use of available space. Every square inch of MCIS is available for learning and collaborating. The open arrangement eliminates circulation corridors. The amount of space devoted to offices and administrative facilities is significantly reduced. Rather than having individual offices, teachers shared a compact and highly efficient planning/work area on the second floor.

Designed to work

One of the most popular spaces within MCIS is the Design Lab, an open lab that exactly mimics the type of collaborative studios used by architecture firms, ad agencies and other design professions. The room is organized as a series of clustered workstations equipped with high-powered desktop computers. The clusters allow students to work in teams of two or three, or combine a grouping of four workstations for small group presentations and brainstorming sessions. The Design Lab is equipped with everything you would find in a modern office: multiple flat screens for displaying work, a pull-down projection screen for large group presentations and office-grade printers and plotters. Exposed ductwork and metal roof decking add to the professional feel of the space.

While the Design Lab provides a space for virtual exploration, the nearby Production Lab is an environment where students can get their hands dirty. The room includes mobile tables with highly durable butcher block countertops. Retractable electrical service lines support the use of a variety of production tools. The proximity of the Design Lab and Production Lab creates an intentional link between the spaces. As project teams develop concepts in the Design Lab, they are able to quickly move over to the Production Lab to begin building prototypes. The cumulative effect is that of a modern research lab, where ideas are quickly, developed, tested and modified.

Thinking small

For years, universities and companies such as Google and Apple have embraced the power of small, personalized spaces for collaboration within the larger built environment. In the same way, the Innovation Zone, the central commons area within MCIS, is broken into a diverse mix of individual and small group spaces. A mixture of soft seating, standard-height tables and café-style tables creates an inviting and comfortable atmosphere. Even the structural elements are in use. Wrapped with durable countertops and equipped with charging outlets, structural columns become the perfect place to work on a laptop or hand-held tablet. The wide range of seating options fits perfectly with the project-based nature of the school’s curriculum.

The feedback from MCIS students shows the power of going small. Within the 23,000-square-foot facility, the most popular space is the smallest. Each morning, students line up waiting for the MCIS doors to open. When they do, a footrace ensues to claim a prized spot in one of the second-floor Pod Bays. The Pod Bays are a series of three booths, each equipped with a central table, two small couches and a wall-mounted monitor connected to a custom central receptacle. Students plug their laptops or tablets into the receptacle and are able to share control of what is displayed on the monitor. The Pod Bays are a cost-effective and compact alternative to popular manufactured systems that perform a similar function. To maintain security and visual supervision, the Pod Bays are located next to the second-floor teacher planning suite.

Innovation on a budget

While higher education and corporate facilities typically have a higher cost-per-square-foot than K-12 schools, creating real-world learning environments does not need to break the bank. The Milan Center for Innovative Studies was completed for $239 a square foot, including technology and loose furnishings. The multifunctional nature of the school maximizes valuable resources. Even the stairway to the second floor serves a key purpose. The stairway acts as an amphitheater and is used for all-school assemblies. Each morning, students fill the stairs to hear the day’s announcements and discuss their current projects. During the day, the stairs provides another place for students to congregate and collaborate.

Other cost-saving measures include the use of durable materials to extend the building life-cycle. The Innovation Zone and amphitheater stairs use polished concrete to reduce wear and tear, a key concern given the constant reorganization of the school’s mobile tables and chairs.

Responding to a shifting landscape

School districts throughout the state of Michigan are touring the Milan Center for Innovative Studies to gain a glimpse of the future of education. However, the strategies located within this progressive building are not entirely new. Instead, the environment draws from best practices already being implemented in modern secondary education, higher education and work environments. By providing high school seniors with real-world educational experiences and facilities, the Milan Center for Innovative Studies better prepares students to succeed in their chosen fields. 

Carla Remenschneider, RID, IIDA, is an interior designer with Fanning Howey, a educational facilities planning and design firm. Misty Raatz is a project manager with Fanning Howey.