Classrooms of the 21st century need to be much more flexible in design and efficiency than the traditional K-12 classrooms of the past or present. Concepts like visualization space, fabrication space and presentation space demand a total reengineering of traditional ideas.
Over the past several decades, we’ve observed the “Millennial Generation” and “Gen X.” This author refers to the up and coming generation of students as “DG,” the Distracted Generation. From birth onward, these children have experienced almost continuous audio and visual stimulus. This is the generation that has been strapped into the back seat of the minivan with a Disney movie playing during the 15 minute drive to daycare. This is the generation that watches TV programs, movies and commercials that are edited to add a new camera angle every 1.9 seconds on average. The effect that these continual distractions are having on today’s students is significant. Ask a 13-year-old to sit still and watch a classic Alfred Hitchcock mystery from the 1960′s and you will see significant evidence for the Distracted Generation. According to a recent study from the Pew Institute of Research, this is the generation that sends or receives an average of 60 text messages per day (in addition to many tweets on Twitter and texted conversations on Facebook). In addition, the effect of electronics taking the place of siblings, friends and parents makes today’s Distracted Generation more likely to exhibit characteristics consistent with ADD and ADHD. As designers and educators, this is what we are competing with when we consider how to improve the classroom of the 21st century.
The purpose of this article is not to focus on all of the labels, but rather to admit that educational institutions must fully understand their target audience. We must realize that our children are consumers and like all consumers, they have more choices than ever to tune out or simply not be engaged in what is going on in the classroom.
Let’s take a look at 5 ways how we, as designers and educators, can help limit distractions and facilitate learning in the classroom:
Flexible and Efficient Workspace
Smart Teacher Space
Collaborative Student Space
Flexible & Efficient Workspace
For many years, schools, churches and other communal workspaces have all utilized flexible demising walls, like accordion partitions. These movable partitions allow instructors to increase and redefine their classroom space as needed. Such flexibility makes great sense. Even without a movable demising wall, a larger rectangular space can be easily divided with a rolling acoustical wall. Similar portable partitions can often be found in cubicle furniture systems that include partitions upholstered with acoustically dampening material. In the classroom, these portable partitions can be used to surround a small study group that can be easily expanded for special presentations. Students and teachers alike report that they enjoy utilizing these partitions and that it is somewhat like “building a fort” in the middle of the classroom. A little fun in school is a good thing as long as it does not compete with the day’s lesson.
Elementary classrooms typically have one door located near the teacher’s desk so that students can be closely monitored as they desire to enter and exit the classroom. This makes good sense with young children, but for middle schools and beyond, it may make more sense to incorporate entrances and exits at the rear of the space to create fewer disruptions during lectures. This design element has been used successfully in college classrooms for generations.
When considering ceiling height within classrooms, it is preferred, when possible, to have a relatively high ceiling clearance. This minimizes stuffiness and lack of oxygen for students who may be tired or drowsy after lunch time. Depending on the particular ceiling design and acoustical tiles used, a higher ceiling height can actually improve the acoustics from the students’ vantage point.
The 21st century classroom must of course be energy efficient, but it also must be labor efficient. Required maintenance for flooring is the largest time consumer for maintenance staff. Carpeting makes good sense for environments like a library where there is a high degree of adult supervision over the students (minimizing the possibility of a food spill, for example). Carpeting has made its way into some classrooms and multipurpose rooms, but vinyl composite flooring (VCT) is still king. VCT is highly recyclable and more popular than ever even though it is one of the most expensive flooring surfaces to maintain. However, recent advancements in floor armoring materials have significantly reduced those labor expenses to maintain beautifully waxed floors. With one application, nanotechnology armoring can protect floors as well as school lockers and bathroom partitions for up to 10 years. Thanks to this new technology, schools and corporations are reducing their annual maintenance budgets by approximately 65%. This same nanotechnology was originally used by Boeing to reduce drag on their aircraft designs.
Along with nanotechnology armoring, there is an anti-germicidal version that is being used in hospitals and nursing homes which can also help maintain sanitary surfaces in school restrooms and cafeterias. This same technology is showing great promise in anti-graffiti applications – not just for sides of buildings and street signs, but for lockers and restrooms in schools as well.
Smart Teacher Space
As important as it is to have flexible and efficient space, a good teacher remains the single most valuable component of the future classroom. However, because technology plays such a central role, it’s important that the teacher is just as tech savvy as the students. In designing the classroom, the teacher’s podium should be provided with electrical outlets and USB inputs which allow the teacher to easily share news articles, photos, videos or even PowerPoint presentations that are stored on a personal mobile device. To make the best use of the space, the teacher’s podium should also have the capability to be easily rolled out of the way.
Another flexible teaching tool for teachers, the smart whiteboard, has quickly become a favorite of teachers and students. Seventy-inch touchscreen models may be beyond the budgets of some school districts to incorporate in every classroom, but integrated LCD or LED versions are available for about 70% less than some of the top touchscreen models. Low-tech whiteboards should not be overlooked as a less expensive alternative. If the space divides well into 2, 3 or 4 subgroups, it would be wise to incorporate each of those corners of the classroom with its own whiteboard.
Collaborative Student Space
Like teachers, students should also be provided with a smart and flexible space. Traditional desks can be replaced with more flexible furniture that encourages more collaborative learning. These desks and tables have traditionally been found in college lecture halls or chemistry labs. They accommodate 2 to 3 people with enough room for laptops and printed materials. The table surfaces should have sufficient electrical outlets for laptop power supplies as well as USB connectors. As much as principals would like to ban cell phones from classrooms, designers of the 21st century classroom must accept the fact that such mobile devices are here to stay and are often required for the students’ safety and communication. Giving the students an accessible place to recharge devices while minimizing interruptions in the classroom is practical and appropriate.
Lighting typically accounts for 30-45% of a facility’s total electrical expense. Incorporating the most energy-efficient lighting technology can reduce this expense by at least half. Although the conversion of HID lighting (metal halide and high-pressure sodium) to more energy-efficient LED is ideal, due to the relatively high cost of LED, it has been slow to be welcomed into K-12 schools. HID lighting is often found in parking lots and gymnasiums (without question, in the opinion of this author, every last HID lamp and ballast should be converted to LED). With today’s LED technology, 5 lights can run on the same power consumed by just 1 HID light fixture. The most efficient lighting in the classroom today and in the near future remains the energy-efficient T5 and T8 fluorescent lighting. Two fluorescent tubes can provide the same light output that used to require 3 or 4 tubes just a few years ago. Today’s new lamps, ballast and specular reflectors, can save up to 70% of the power required from light fixtures less than one generation ago.
Classroom lighting should be adequate so there are no dark corners or bad shadows. This is typically achieved with a combination of daylight and energy-efficient fluorescent lighting. 2×2 or 2×4 fluorescent light fixtures lay into the ceiling grid along with the acoustical tiles. A square classroom configuration should have at least 2 banks of lighting with switches that control an entire row of light fixtures, while a rectangular classroom should have at least 3 banks of lighting. The bank of lights closest to the front of the room should be easily controlled by the teacher without creating the “naptime” effect in the classroom.
Classrooms, restrooms, teacher lounges, offices, storage areas (almost everywhere other than busy hallways and open general office areas) should be fitted with occupancy sensors. The latest generation of sensors utilizes passive infrared to monitor occupancy within a room. Dual technology occupancy sensors can be used to keep the lights on in a restroom even if there is no movement for an extended period of time but there is occupancy in a stall. These dual technology occupancy sensors send out a continuous ultrasonic signal that bounces off walls, providing the ability to “see” occupants within a restroom even when they cannot be detected by infrared means.
Another design element borrowed from college classrooms and lecture halls is to provide the teacher with a well-lit, elevated presentation platform or stage. This stage effect can be completed with a bank of theatrical style lighting, including LED spotlights and floodlights, which light the presentation surface and/or wash the walls with light. Again, having easy-to-understand controls that the teacher or presenter can quickly manage is very important.
Good architectural design for the classroom of the 21st century should always maximize daylight. By utilizing natural daylight from the windows, the need to have all light fixtures on at a time is minimized, while also minimizing unwanted heat that may be gained from southern and western exposures. Some school districts have opted to not have operable windows (that is, windows that can be opened) for security reasons and also for HVAC efficiency. However, if it is possible to include operable windows in the design of new classrooms, it is always a good option.
HVAC typically accounts for up to 70% of a facility’s total electrical expense. Integrating energy-efficient HVAC systems and components is critical in designing the classroom of the 21st century. Energy-efficient boilers have made good sense for many years. The old radiators that used to ping and whistle have now been replaced with more efficient air handling and duct systems.
Today’s boiler systems can be augmented and, in some cases, even replaced by solar thermal or geothermal generation and storage technology. Newly designed technology allows storage of near boiling water for more than a week with the loss of less than 1°F. Geothermal systems make great sense for many spaces and should be investigated for all new construction projects. 50,000 square feet of interior space used to be the rough cut off under which geothermal did not make economic sense, but today, geothermal can be incorporated efficiently into smaller facilities. All of these systems require the redundancy of a backup system which is typically a gas-fired system.
Recent advances in heating technology, borrowed from some of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world, include combined heat and power systems (CHP). With this technology, heat produced as a byproduct from another process is recaptured and reused, thereby saving the organization the unnecessary expense of additional fuel. With microturbine technology (MTT), an organization can generate some or all of its on-site electrical needs for as little as $0.05/kWh (kilowatt-hour). Microturbines are essentially small jet engines that run 24/7 and can produce 500,000 BTUs (British thermal units) or more as a byproduct. This heat can be used to augment the boiler or even recaptured in a cooling tower with a wind turbine to make free electricity. Hotels and college dorms can use this source of heat to create free hot water for their guests and students.
Thanks to technology borrowed from the healthcare world, contagious airborne viruses can be greatly reduced. The air within restrooms can be recirculated through a UV sterilizer that uses UV-C light to scrub the air and kill 99.99% of airborne contaminants before having a chance to spread. Such systems don’t always make economic sense for the entire facility, but they certainly can be incorporated to address at least the public restrooms and the nurse’s station where sick children typically congregate. UV-C technology can also be used in the entire building’s air handling system where, even with the most energy-efficient systems, mold and dust have a tendency to grow over time. UV-C can effectively wipe out the mold and dust before they become a health problem.
Like occupancy sensors for lighting systems, there are also occupancy sensors for HVAC systems that play an important role in the 21st century classroom. Carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors continually monitor and estimate how many occupants are in a room based upon the parts per million of CO2 gas detected. The amount of fan pressure (measured in cubic feet per minute, or CFM) can dramatically be reduced in areas with few occupants. Architects and engineers typically design their HVAC systems to perform at maximum capacity plus an additional percentage for “headroom” in case the system is highly stressed in times of extreme demands. Although this may be required for engineers, it can prove to be quite expensive in maintaining a facility. For example, full ventilation is required in the cafeteria only when students start taking their lunch breaks or in the gym only during an evening basketball game. Regardless of the time or place, a CO2 occupancy sensor can determine the need and in turn increase or decrease the response.
No matter how smart the controls of an HVAC system are within the classroom, the teacher ultimately needs to be able to temporarily override the system if increased ventilation is required, such as on an unusually warm September day or to help remove a distracting smell. While classrooms with operable windows give teachers the option to somewhat control ventilation, classrooms without operable windows need to provide teachers with the ability to control the HVAC system as need be.
Without question, the single most important component of the classroom of the 21st century remains a smart and engaging teacher. The teacher needs to be tech savvy and able to encourage the most distracted generation of children our nation has ever produced. School districts, superintendents and parents alike should provide these teachers with the very best classrooms available.
To summarize, the classroom of the 21st century needs to be flexible in design and efficient in operation. A larger teaching space needs to have the option of being easily divisible. Portable acoustical partitions, like those found in cubicles but larger, can provide a great benefit in creating a flexible workspace. Nanotechnology armoring can effectively reduce the cost to maintain beautifully-waxed floors. The same nanotechnology can minimize graffiti on lockers and in restrooms. UV sterilizers can scrub the air and kill a very high percentage of airborne viruses. The teacher’s traditional desk and podium should be replaced with an elevated section of floor – essentially a stage, with a portable podium that includes smart connections for electrical outlets as well as mobile devices. Smart whiteboards are becoming more ubiquitous around the country, but low-tech whiteboards are still effective and should not be overlooked as a less expensive alternative. Student’s desks and furniture should encourage collaborative learning with 2 or 3 students working together on a single table. These tables should incorporate sufficient electrical outlets and USB connections to recharge mobile devices. Classroom lighting should include an efficient combination of daylight and T5 or T8 light fixtures coupled with smart controls such as infrared occupancy sensors. There may be additional lights, preferably LED, focused on the presentation area of the classroom (outdoor lighting for the parking lot and other areas should also be LED as it is 5 times more efficient than traditional HID lighting). The teacher should be able to easily control the lighting within the room. The HVAC system needs to provide comfortable temperatures year-round as well as adequate ventilation to help keep students awake and engaged. CO2 occupancy sensors are smart controls that accurately gauge how many people are in a space at any given time and automatically adjust the HVAC system accordingly. If operable windows are not included in the design, the teacher should be provided with the means of temporarily overriding the HVAC system.