Facility Planning

SchoolsNEXT Puts Students at the Center of STEM Learning

The SchoolsNEXT program asks students to innovate, iterate and gives them opportunities to take deep dives into STEM topics of interest to them. Every fall, teams download materials from the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE) website and begin designing schools of the future. In the spring, the association convenes state, and then regional juries to select the finalist teams that will present to a jury at its international conference in late September.

21st century education redesign display


Since 1999, SchoolsNEXT has encouraged middle school students from across the globe to illustrate the creativity they can bring to school design. Together with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the US Green Building Council, A4LE developed an award-winning curriculum to be deployed either in a class or after-school club.

Emphasizing the importance of well-planned, healthy, safe, sustainable and resilient schools that foster achievement and enhance community vitality, the program asks teams to provide multi-disciplinary solutions that follow a robust planning process from concept to completion. Students then collaborate, connect with community mentors as role models (local architects, engineers and scientists), study sustainability, use computer-assisted design programs, build models, produce videos, write project narratives and present to real-world audiences as they take deep dives into topics of interest to them, including science, design thinking, engineering and green building practices.

STEM 2026

This September, coinciding with my preparation to experience yet another SchoolsNEXT competition, I read a remarkable new report jointly released by the U.S. Department of Education and American Institutes for Research entitled, STEM 2026: A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education. Promoting a rigorous STEM education and lifelong learning among youth in all communities, the report suggests six interconnected mechanisms to support STEM learning — which are strikingly similar to the tenets of SchoolsNEXT.

  • Engaged and networked communities of practice connect students to STEM mentors.
  • Accessible learning activities invite intentional play and risk.
  • Innovative and accessible measures of learning recognize that formative assessment can provide valuable insight into the mindsets and habits associated with successful academic and postsecondary outcomes.
  • Societal and cultural images and environments promote diversity and opportunity.
  • Flexible and inclusive learning spaces are located in schools, the natural world, makerspaces and learning environments augmented by innovative technologies.
  • Educational experiences include interdisciplinary approaches to solving “grand challenges.”
children presenting


Students presenting at the 2016 SchoolsNEXT competition.x

Meeting the Challenge Ahead

According to STEM 2026, “Recent analyses indicate that during the next five years, major American companies will need to add a total of nearly 1.6 million employees to their workforce: 945,000 who possess basic STEM literacy and 635,000 who demonstrate advanced STEM knowledge.”

Yet daunting challenges remain if the goal of STEM for all is to be realized. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicate that:

  • Compared with 43 percent of White students and 61 percent of Asian students, just 13 percent and 19 percent of Black and Hispanic students, respectively, are scoring at or above proficiency in eighth-grade mathematics.
  • In eighth-grade science, 45 percent and 46 percent of White and Asian students, respectively, perform at or above proficiency, compared to 20 percent or less of other racial minorities.
  • SchoolsNEXT has the potential to address such achievement gaps by providing mentors and rich STEM experiences, but like so many other youth development programs, will need to vigilantly ensure that all students are given such opportunities, not just those who are naturally afforded them.

Working together with local educators A4LE’s members recruit diverse students to mentor, invite them into the work place and offer real-world experiences. They provide materials and professional insights; and when local students are successful, raise funds to send their teams to the various venues of the competition.

Testimonials abound around the young lives affected by SchoolsNEXT. Some of my recollections as a juror include:

  • The charm offensive by the young African American students from John Phillips Sousa Middle School in Washington, DC whose idea for a historic timeline in their school’s main entry depicting the school’s rich history of music, desegregation and civil rights was actually incorporated into the school’s renovation.
  • The poise and intelligence of a Latino team from Imago Dei, a tuition-free middle school for low-income families in Tucson, Ariz., who designed a school made of local and reused materials on an abandoned lot in their neighborhood.
  • The knowledge of four girls from Mukilteo, Wash., who participated in a Congressional briefing on sustainability with Senator Patty Murray’s staff and demonstrated that they knew more about green building design than most adults in the room.
  • The poise of this year’s Award of Excellence winners from Oregon’s Lake Oswego Junior High whose well-defined planning process addressed community “needs” and “wants” with innovative solutions, including a Holodeck for virtual field trips, vertical green walls for safety and security, CO2-sequestering concrete and flexible maker spaces.

A Bright Future

It comes as no surprise that young people today believe they genuinely can, and should, make a difference in their local communities. SchoolsNEXT’s holistic approach to learning and rich connections between an ever-increasing network of school, industry and community partners, offers students opportunities to use high-level thinking and creativity to solve some of their generation’s most pressing problems.

Cole Webber (a high school student from Ontario, who in the three years since he participated in the program has written a book, founded a nonprofit, spoke at 20 international school planning events and served as an advisor to the Minister of Education in his province) summed up the program nicely. “SchoolsNEXT was the thing that started it all for me … I can say first-hand the value of this program. It is not just a fun project to do in school. This program changes lives.”

This article originally appeared in the issue of .