5 Trends Changing Physical Learning Environments in Schools

Whether you are a parent, a politician, or just a concerned citizen, it’s commonly agreed that what children need to know to succeed in today’s digital world is quite different than it was when we were kids. This has led to broad sweeping curriculum changes across U.S. schools with an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs; and the often debated Common Core Standards backed by billionaire Bill Gates that has completely changed the way children learn math and other important disciplines.

The changes being made to what children are being taught in classrooms and how teachers are providing this education is also impacting the physical environments where all this learning is taking place.

Below are five important building and construction trends being witnessed at schools across the nation, in large part as a response to the aforementioned changes being made inside the classroom and in textbooks (or more likely on tablets and computers.)

Trend #1: Avg. Buildings Age Over 2X Anticipated Useful Life

It’s no surprise that most schools’ infrastructure needs some improvement. However what may not be common knowledge is that in the U.S. the average public school age is 44 years old; and the “functional age” of these schools with factored-in renovations, was projected to be only 19 years. This has left a significant gap in usage and expected useful life of these buildings.

According to the latest reports, there are over 13,000 public school districts in the United States, and over 100,000 public schools. Approximately 25% of these schools have been closed over the last several years and/or experienced consolidation. This is in large part due to the age of buildings and infrastructure, but also a variety of other factors that are detailed below.

Trend #2: Enrollment Down but School Size Going Up

Schools are being consolidated across the nation, with a common theme of reducing the number of public schools, yet increasing the average size of each school in terms of square footage and student population. With aging and outgrown facilities and a reduction in enrollments, public schools are having to rethink their strategies.

Many are evaluating larger scale campuses that have the advantage of spreading capital costs across more students in terms of shared and common resources like auditoriums, libraries, kitchens, gymnasiums, etc. More K-12 grades are being combined, in particular across middle and high schools.

While the sizes of schools may be getting bigger in some cases, the need for flexibility in terms of how space is used and easily repurposed is also rising. Many schools are opting for modular and prefabricated construction that inherently maps well to these requirements for reuse and portability.

The consolidation of students is also consistent with blended learning environments that focus on interdisciplinary, project-based learning that foster learning across student bodies and disciplines like music and mathematics.

Trend 3: Bridging Real World with the School Environment

The look, feel, and architectural designs are evolving to be more consistent with the open workspaces and offices we are seeing in modern business organizations, especially start-ups. There are ‘learning hubs’ that are conducive to collaboration and project-based teams, and often no stagnant ‘head’ of the classroom. Spaces are also expected to be used for multiple purposes throughout the day; and physically adaptable to changing curriculums and students, almost instantly. Cafeterias are becoming teaching areas, and walkways turned into lecture halls.

There is also trend towards greater connectivity between businesses and the local community to help bridge real world skill requirements which are changing constantly. Companies are building schools of their own at their headquarter campuses with instructors that are employees, and many towns are converting excess office space into elementary school classrooms.

Trend 4: Connecting the Outside More with the Inside

How students are experiencing the outdoor environment and natural lighting is also changing. Learning will happen more through hands-on labs, often directly outside, Such as example would be a health program including a gardening and food harvesting experience just off the exterior of a classroom.

Student movement is also being brought more outside, removing interior and often windowless hallways; and replacing them with exterior walkways and outdoor connectivity with lots of natural light. Not only is the experience better but there can be significant costs savings as a result of reduced overall costs per sq/ft, and lowered heating and cooling costs. This is a result of a high percentage of interior square footage often dedicated to student movement and connectivity.

Trend 5: More Open to Change, and More Funding

While not all schools are embracing change, school administrators are more open to doing things differently than ever before it seems. This has also coincided with greater availability of public funding, in large part thanks to voters approving schools bonds and levying taxes to kick-off new projects.

There are still plenty of naysayers, but with increased pressure to better prepare students for the digital and connected real world, and the influx of new technologies making change less risky and more affordable, things are finally happening.

Modular construction, new materials, smart building technologies, and advanced fabrication methodologies are bringing new found levels of flexibility and affordability to support a variety of space requirements. Mobile devices are becoming the norm in ‘open’ classrooms equipped with 24/7 wifi, smartboards, and other tools to drive continuous learning and collaboration.

The anytime, anywhere world that is constantly changing, reshaping itself, and sharing information is bleeding over into the education world. Teachers are having to adapt their strategies to prepare students, curriculums are evolving, and the physical environment of schools will need to mirror these requirements with added flexibility, mobility, and modularity.

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