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Inspiring Learning: Award-Winning Hajjar STEM Center Fosters Learning in Unexpected Places

Dwight-Englewood School Hajjar STEM Center. Image © Paúl Rivera

This post is the fifth in Reimagining Learning, a series that will look beyond the classroom in a quest to explore how innovative design can better support learning.

In my October 2014 post, “The State of STEM: Aligning Design with Pedagogy,” I reported on the lofty aspirations around the design of the new STEM building at the Dwight-Englewood School, where we sought to create a new paradigm for a STEM facility that aligned with strategies we created with the School in our research paper, “The ABC’s of STEM.” In September 2015, the building was opened with huge anticipation and excitement, dedicated as the Hajjar STEM Center. And just one year later on September 13th the Hajjar STEM Center was recognized by the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education as one of twelve winners of the prestigious 2016 CAE Education Facility Design Award. The distinction recognizes the project as an outstanding example of design trends conducive to creating an exemplary learning environment. The jury comments including “The simple, rectangular forms are executed with precision and sophistication that clearly reflect its use,” and “This building acts like a big STEM lab with a central core that connects the entire building, physically and visually,” clearly demonstrate the success of the project’s design.

The building is organized to promote integrated learning. The school’s mandate was that science and mathematics not be taught in isolation, but instead be presented together, using an integrated, experiential approach in which students work on meaningful problems and are motivated to solve them. The central design concept places the learning spaces around a central communal area, with laboratories and mathematics classrooms in direct proximity to each other. There are few corridors in the plan, which allows for more collaboration and interaction between subject areas. Large panes of acoustic clear glass provide transparency from the central circulation area into the learning spaces, providing views of the activities within, and ultimately connecting to the natural views outside.

Image © Garrett Rowland

Learning spaces are flexible, intuitive, and leverage technology as needed. Each space was configured in collaboration with the mathematics and science faculty and tailored to foster collaborative, problem-based, interactive learning. Bio/Chem and AP laboratories are configured for the diverse curriculum and each lab has two zones. The first zone, for the didactic portion of the class, is a three-sided teaching “nook” with writable/projectable surfaces that nestles a communal teaching table, which can be broken apart and reconfigured. The second zone is for experimentation and contains fixed three-sided lab benches where three teams can work at one time. Physics laboratories are completely flexible. Furniture can be moved to the side of the room for experimentation. A checkerboard pattern in the flooring creates a horizontal measurement grid. Each room has a hanging grid and power at the ceiling to allow for multiple setups. Mathematics classrooms have three writable walls, two of which have projectors. Furniture is completely flexible. A robotics workshop is centrally housed in a glass-enclosed area below the main terraced seating, directly adjacent to a work area and at the nexus of the building circulation. Students and teachers are pulled into the robotics area just by seeing and passing by, again allowing for more collaboration.

Image © Garrett Rowland

Circulation areas offer unexpected opportunities for learning. All of these spaces are integrated into the building circulation and offers choice to students and faculty. The walls outside the classrooms are clad in white back-painted glass to serve marker boards for impromptu problem-solving sessions. Colorful nooks, containing banquettes, tables, and chairs allows for small group study. A soft seating zone directly outside the glass-enclosed faculty area creates a living room-like setting where students and faculty can comfortably meet to discuss assignments and projects. A large terraced seating area serves as additional discussion space and its adjacency to a large video wall allows for large-group presentations. An open, flat-floor “Innovation Center,” adjacent to the robotics lab and out in the open allows students to tinker and test their projects in a quasi-workshop setting.

Image © Garrett Rowland

Faculty is co-located to improve teaching strategies. The school decided that the building should encourage collaboration among departments that used to work in isolation. They felt that collaboration over time that would change the curriculum, as one body of educators work together, learn together, and rethink how and what they teach. The faculty workroom is highly visible behind a glass partition adjacent to the central gathering area, allowing staff to become part of the daily dynamics of the building. Faculty do not have offices, but instead a personal workstation located within the common cluster. Open work tables encourage faculty-faculty and faculty-student interaction.

Image © Garrett Rowland

Learning happens outdoors, too. Each of the building’s 15 learning spaces features a full wall with floor-to-ceiling glass, and provides unobstructed views of the campus landscape. The landscape is not simply a bucolic setting, but instead has four distinct, purposeful learning areas tied to the Environmental Science program. The bioswale receives runoff from adjacent areas, stores and naturally filters it before releasing it to the municipal system. The plant species are specially selected for this environment. The Microclimate Garden has indigenous species that grow and bloom at different times of the year. A terraced, hardscaped area provides an outdoor venue for physics and other exploration and greenhouse provides an area for year-round experimentation in plant science.

“There’s some great stuff happening here.” We recently had a conversation with Joseph Algrant, principal of the Upper School, Jessica Leiken, chair of the science department, and John King, chair of the mathematics department. The three of them had been part of the earliest conversations and benchmarking around the project, and we wanted to check in with them to see how the building was working. They reported that although they were still getting used to the space, the building immediately felt like home because they were so integrally involved in the planning. The students’ responses have also been immediate, from the “wow” factor to the fact that they hang out, study, and establish small learning groups in different parts of the building throughout the day. A new robotics team meets in the building on Friday nights. Because the building is so open, students are seen working with different teachers and there is a larger awareness of what is happening in the math and science curriculum. As a testament to the building as a teaching tool, the faculty is using the learning spaces to try things they weren’t able to do before, and communicating with each other better than they ever have.

Image © Garrett Rowland

So while it would be a stretch after such a short time to say that the building has lived up to its promise, it is safe to say that that it is off to an amazing start. As Jessica put it, “there’s some great stuff happening here.” Watch for Dialogue 29 for a full report on our conversation with Joe, Jessica and John.

Mark Thaler is one of Gensler’s Education Practice Area leaders in the New York office, develops education projects at all scales, from classroom to campus. Mark has a passion for creating learning spaces that inspire, and collaborates with his clients to create these environments. Interested in Gensler’s education research? Send Mark a note at mark_thaler@gensler.com.

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