Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Creating Learning Spaces for a New Age of Discovery

By Jim Childress — May 21, 2013 6 min read

Albert Einstein was 26 when he published his special theory of relativity. James D. Watson was 25 when he and Francis Crick discovered the architecture of DNA, arguably the greatest scientific achievement of our lifetime. Steve Jobs, another early bloomer, believed that you couldn’t trust people over 30 to come up with radical innovations.

Working for decades with Nobel laureate Jim Watson and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York on developing that research campus, I learned that the road to scientific achievement is not a straight line between two points, but rather a meandering, eclectic journey that should encompass the arts and humanities, interdisciplinary collaboration and sociability, and even sports and outdoor pastimes, including bird watching. Now in his 80s, Watson still plays a mean game of tennis. He is also an accomplished writer with an affection for the arts and is no slouch when it comes to architecture.

Science does not thrive in a vacuum: The broader the interests of the inquisitor, the better.

This bias toward precociousness and intellectual diversity makes the job of designing science and math facilities for nascent Watsons all the more challenging and important. Today’s students are our future, and that future is near at hand. We get a few short years to inspire them so they can go out over the ensuing decade and nudge the world in the right direction.

How does one do that?

Well, in part, you have to create excitement about science, math, and engineering by designing places not simply to impart facts and figures, but flexible spaces where young people want to be, hang out after class, share ideas, and test what they have learned through real-world applications. Think of a garage where you do projects, where a messy vitality inspires enlightened tinkering. Rather than purveying only “pure” or theoretical math, engage students, for example, in using formulas to calculate the volume of various greenhouse gas emissions and how to mitigate them. (See slideshow below.)

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Educators and architects now realize that formulaic, old-school classrooms are not the only place where learning flourishes.

At one independent boarding school in Connecticut, the new biomass heating facility was designed to perform double duty as an ancillary teaching lab, exposing and documenting how the technology works and how the fuel is connected to a cycle of responsible stewardship.

Students get to observe infrastructure in action, up close, and calculate what the plant means to the school in terms of the cost savings of wood-chip fuel versus fuel oil. They also explore how the plant affects the larger world through reduced emissions of various kinds. Math and the sciences are partners in these inquiries.

At another Connecticut school, the goal has been to make the campus carbon-free and self-sufficient so that it can produce clean energy onsite, as well as harvest its own food and clean water. This ambitious effort encompasses not just math and science, but also ethics and philosophy: How does one define and live “the good life” today?

Based on the Watson paradigm, learning is a nonlinear exercise. The blurring of lines between disciplines is reflected in contemporary academic spaces, which also need to be flexible enough to accommodate the many-splendored ways that teachers teach and students learn.

At yet another independent school, this one in Missouri, the design of a new academic building positions math and science classrooms to encourage collaboration, alternating them so students and faculty regularly mix. Its large classroom/laboratory spaces are 30 percent bigger than what is typical for a high school, enabling teachers and students to move seamlessly between the whiteboards and research benches in large or small groups.

The humanities, too, can benefit from the proximity and contact with their math and science fellows. At this Missouri school, spaces for science and math are integrated with those of other disciplines, including an 800-seat forum which the entire student body uses. Throughout the building, transparent classrooms and public spaces where students can display their work further connect scholars with one another and their respective fields of study.

Students want to feel that they are an active part of the learning process, and that learning engages not simply their minds but their hands and bodies, even their emotions.”

At a Massachusetts high school, the science classrooms open up to engage the outdoors, where test gardens, bio-swales, and native plants beckon. In just a few steps, students can connect what they learn inside with practical applications outside, or vice versa.

If the great outdoors and biomass plants make for such good classrooms, perhaps the message is that we are trying too hard with design. Give space and technology to the community, and just let the teachers and students make of it what they will.

Clearly, one size and one approach no longer fits all (if they ever did). Students want to feel that they are an active part of the learning process, and that learning engages not simply their minds but their hands and bodies, even their emotions. Budding scientists don’t want to be shunted off at the edge of the campus, as in the days of yore, invisible to their peers.

Science and math and the arts and humanities should feed off one another. The creativity and even whimsy of the liberal arts is relevant to the process of scientific discovery. And the sciences need not be deadly serious—quite the contrary. A curriculum that pigeonholes science is shortchanging other offerings. The two go together, like the hemispheres of the brain. We can’t pretend to understand the world without both.

Jim Watson once said, “Science moves with the spirit of an adventure, characterized by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, will be simple as well as beautiful.” Steve Jobs understood that working spaces, designed correctly, could foster creativity. As he was believed to have said, “Why join the Navy when you could be a pirate?”

Let the wild rumpus begin!

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Corridors at the science and math building at the Berkshire School, a coeducational college-preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts, include spaces for students to congregate and study. Photography © Peter Aaron/Esto


The new science and math building at the Berkshire School offers large science classrooms where students can transition from desk to lab work. Photography © Peter Aaron/Esto


At Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a coeducational day school in Massachusetts, a generous transparent corridor provides flexible meeting and study spaces for students. Photography © Jeff Goldberg/Esto


In a new STEM building at the Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, an independent school in Missouri, math and science classrooms alternate so that students and faculty regularly mix and collaborate. The building’s classroom and laboratory spaces are 30 percent bigger than what is typical for a high school, as is shown in this rendering of a math classroom. The size enables teachers and students to move seamlessly between the whiteboards and research benches in large or small groups. © Centerbrook Architects


At the Hotchkiss School, an independent coed boarding school for 9th to 12th grades in Connecticut, the new biomass heating facility performs double duty as an ancillary teaching lab, exposing how the technology works and how the fuel is connected to a cycle of responsible stewardship. Photography © David Sundberg/Esto

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Designing Learning Spaces for a New Age of Discovery

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