Guest Post: Learning Environments Remade, Step-by-Step

3 ways Pittsburgh schools can create future-focused learning environments with fewer resources

As Pennsylvania continues to deal with the inherent challenges of its current budget deficit, learning institutions in Pittsburgh and across the state find themselves in the daunting position of needing to do more for their students with less. Balancing the need to save money and reduce costs with the need to upgrade facilities to ensure students acquire skills that will help them succeed in the future is a challenging act.

That said, continuing to educate students in spaces not equipped to help them take the jobs of the future will only exasperate the challenges our cities and state face for generations. It’s important that even amidst challenging economic times, our K-12 schools continue to find creative ways to invest in 21st century spaces that spur innovation and enrich learning. While it may not be possible to completely renovate a school at large, there are smaller steps districts can take to strengthen their learning facilities. Fortunately, there are schools in Pittsburgh and across the country leading the way in revealing how smaller investments and updates can have large, positive impacts for students.

Here’s a look at three examples that may potentially help inform future K-12 investment in our city and state.

Focus on STEM a Few Classrooms at a Time
Limited budgets don’t mean schools shouldn’t invest in future-focused learning environments at all, it just means they need to be strategic. Simply updating a couple classrooms can create dynamic change for students, cultures and curriculum. Those schools looking to take this ’few classrooms at a time’ approach, may be wise to begin by infusing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) environments in their schools. Recent projections from the U.S. Department of Education paint a bright future for jobs in STEM fields and a need to graduate approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than we’re currently on pace for in the decade ahead.

Niagara Falls School District STEM Classrooms / Photo provided by CannonDesignOne model Pittsburgh-area districts may want to follow is Niagara Falls City School District’s Inventing Tomorrow campaign in Niagara Falls, New York. Via Inventing Tomorrow, Niagara Falls became the first known school district in New York State to construct dedicated, shared STEM labs in each of its school buildings. The high school received two STEM specialty labs, one focused on engineering and one focused on biomedical technology.

The engineering lab is equipped with overhead utility grids, mobile furniture, a prep room, 3-D printing and more while the biomedical tech lab provides fully outfitted student lab stations, a fume hood, a prep room and a 3-D interactive whiteboard allowing for virtual dissection. Labs in Niagara Falls K-8 schools consist of three distinct zones: an open area for large, group project work; a workshop zone with mobile group tables and chairs; and a resource bar for computing, note taking and work-in-progress display.

Via this model and focus on renovating a few classrooms specifically, Niagara Falls was able to infuse 21st century STEM learning throughout its district and bring cutting-edge technology to its students. It’s a strategy other schools can consider as they seek to maximize facility investments and enhance learning opportunities.

Leverage Community Resources
Homewood-Brushton YMCA / Photo provided by CannonDesign
When cost challenges limit new building or renovation opportunities, school districts should also consider opportunities to leverage community resources. Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh recently benefitted from such an approach via its partnership with the Homewood-Brushton YMCA. Having long hosted the YMCA’s Lighthouse Project – an afterschool program that teaches leadership and career readiness through the media arts of film, photography, graphic design and music production – at the school, Westinghouse and the YMCA realized a need to upgrade its facilities to best serve students.

Ultimately, this led to a dynamic 6,000 square foot renovation at the YMCA that supports both the Lighthouse Project and the Pittsburgh community as it features a state-of-the-art recording studio, large performance space, photography and videography skills areas, a cafeteria, new atrium and workforce re-development training area.

Homewood-Brushton YMCA Recording Studio / Photo provided by CannonDesignWhile these spaces are hosted outside the school itself, they are directly helping Westinghouse students acquire the skills, experience, and training they need to prepare for brighter futures. Moreover, hosting the program in the YMCA is helping increase access to students from other schools and parts of the city – all helping spur civic collaboration and knock down perceived barriers across communities.

Other schools in and around Pittsburgh should think if there are nearby community spaces and organizations that could benefit their programming and explore opportunities. They may also want to outreach to city-wide communities like Remake Learning—a professional network of educators and innovators working together to shape the future of teaching and learning in the Greater Pittsburgh Region—for ideas and help forging connections.

Invest in a Learning Commons
Academic libraries are foundational to learning, but they have significantly evolved thanks to the rapid acceleration of technology and the new access to information it can provide. While books are still present in these spaces, they are now surrounded by digital technologies and WiFi access that helps students study, collaborate, engage and learn in new interactive ways.  Schools on the leading-edge of introducing learning commons are creating spaces more akin to coffee shops or makerspaces than traditional libraries with stacks and stacks of books.

Seneca Valley School District (SVSD) in Harmony, PA is rethinking its library to recognize this trend. The district has removed some bookshelves from their elementary school libraries to make room for robotics equipment, 3D printers and a maker space. Additionally, the spaces are now equipped with softer seating areas to support research components empowered by the makerspace, along with general literacy. The robotics area also features a tech-based coding center that is housed in an adjacent, connected room where students can learn coding skills. All of these resources are available to their K-6 students.

SVSD is an example of how districts can infuse their libraries with digital tools, flexible space and furniture, whiteboards and more to create learning commons. Such efforts focus investment and enrich one specific area of a school that can drive powerful results.

The budget challenges Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania schools face are real. However, it’s imperative for our students that we continue to find ways to create and advance 21st-century learning environments. Through creative thinking, design, strategy, and focus seen in the examples above, there are numerous ways we can keep moving forward and help students reach their full potential.

Published February 09, 2017

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