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Back to School! An Architect’s Insights

By Jeremiah Hatfield, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

December 8, 2021

I remember being 8 years old watching Rodney Dangerfield in a film called Back to School (if you don’t know the movie, take a dive back to the 80s and check it out). This film has likely catalyzed my nightmares and daydreams about going back to school as my middle-aged self. I’m not certain the AP calculus or advanced chemistry knowledge will ever come back to me, but everything else feels like it would be a breeze, especially wood shop and drafting. This year, I have had a lot of similar thoughts working as one of the lead architects (and project manager) for the renovations of my alma mater Wayne High School.  When I saw an opportunity to go “Back to School” to better understand today’s learning environment firsthand, I approached the opportunity with enthusiasm (maybe not as much as Rodney though).

The purpose of my “Back to School” experience focused on gaining a better understanding of Wayne High School’s New Tech Academy (NTA). During our design sessions for renovations of the High School, our design group continually heard that the NTA was different. It functions as a “School in a School” and the students in the academy learn differently and interact differently. As our group dug in, we started to understand the learning environments inherent in the NTA were leaking into the traditional high school atmosphere. As a trained architect and problem solver, I needed to learn more.

New Tech schools apply project-based learning, engaging students in a collaborative, technology enriched environment. Even though I was physically in the same building I traversed through 20 years ago, I was clearly not in the same High School. So much has changed.

1. The Physical Classroom

The traditional Wayne classroom is 30’ x 30’, has an intentional front of the classroom, and in most cases still has the traditional tablet arm desk. Most NTA classrooms are 45’ x 45’. The NTA classrooms use mobile tables, stacking sled chairs, mobile teaching stations, multiple teaching walls, and the ability to plug in laptops for multiple configurations. In essence, the rooms allow extreme flexibility as teachers provide general instruction for the entire class, then in a moment’s notice requires students to break out and collaborate effectively in small groups.

Wayne New Tech Classroom
Wayne New Tech Classroom
Wayne New Tech Technology

2. Technology

Today’s student is armed with their own laptop and, in most cases, a cell phone and air pod. I observed teachers wirelessly connecting and switching between laptops and digital cameras, as well as integrating software and web applications (many I had never heard of) into the lessons. Today’s lessons are less about memorization and more about collaboratively solving problems using an arsenal of technology and web-based information.

Wayne New Tech Technology

3. The Atmosphere

Most students today enjoy freedoms and privileges many of us never saw. Students often enjoy the ability to use cell phones (non-distractedly), listen to music, eat and drink during instruction, and in some cases leave the classroom without specific issue. Teachers interact with students by sitting with them, offering ideas, and engaging in “what-if” scenarios. Expectations are still set, exceptional work is still rewarded, and of course, classroom shenanigans still occur.

Wayne New Tech Students
Wayne New Tech Students
Wayne New Tech Learning

4. Co-Teaching

The most unique concept I observed was the integral combination of traditional subjects co-taught by partnering teachers in a single class period. Geo-Cad is a class where students designed a preschool toy that involved using solid geometric shapes in a larger geometric container shell. Students were required to first sketch and name the geometric shape (i.e. scalene obtuse triangle), then model it electronically. The container design involved creative thought to solve a form vs. function challenge. Other co-taught subjects combined World History, Religious Studies, American Studies, and Writing.

Wayne New Tech Learning

As designers, we must ask a lot of questions to understand our clients and the users of the spaces we design. Most things in life change and evolve, and we often must go beyond our personal experiences, especially when they are decades old. Understanding design challenges sometimes requires observing in action. My “Back to School” adventure didn’t involve me becoming the center of attention or an ace in old subject material like Rodney Dangerfield’s character, but it was definitely an experience I enjoyed and one that I’ll use on many future education projects.

Check out a few more K-12 projects that Jeremiah has been a part of!

Adams Central Community School

Lane Middle School

Weisser Park Elementary

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