Client:Elmwood Park Community Unit School District 401
Date:January 04, 2016

Classroom Design boosts Peer Learning

Science Center Addition and Remodeling at Elmwood Park High School

The aging, deteriorated existing science labs demanded a renovation; the real challenge arose from a series of meetings the architect held with the Board, Administration, and Staff.  From here, it was determined massive change was in order to serve the District’s pedagogy for 21st Century Education. The resulting addition is essentially a single learning space with flexible labs and small group spaces that are open to the Flex Learning Corridor.

Designed for next generation science standards, the Addition blends core ideas and concepts across science disciplines; the labs are virtually interchangeable between disciplines (Earth and Space Sciences, Physical Science, Life Science and Chemistry). First floor labs feature translucent “garage doors” that open directly to the Flex Learning Corridor that is the main arterial corridor. This corridor breakout space is a large lab designed to increase student interaction and collaboration.

While most of the addition’s furniture is movable for flexibility, two of the Labs contain fixed lab stations with water and gas connections. Dedicated lecture space was eschewed in favor of group lab stations that encourage student collaboration and feature motorized countertops to switch between standing lab configuration and seated test taking/lecture mode. Second floor Labs are equipped with fume hoods to accommodate volatile experiments in each of the labs. Three Science Prep Rooms allow for chemical storage and two Ancillary Experimental Spaces are provided for staff collaboration and experiments.

Independent/Itinerant Study Spaces, complete with white board and pin-up area, provide an additional venue for group learning, research, presentations and project display. Two are further equipped with water and gas for students to conduct problem-based learning projects. This accommodates the advanced prerequisite requirements for top universities, and students learn organizational skills, leadership skills, and how to work in a group. To further showcase learning, these rooms are visible from the corridor.

Science on display:

Science and learning opportunities are everywhere in the space. Three of the labs have large overhead doors that open them to the main, flexible arterial learning space (Flex Learning Corridor) that links the addition to the existing building. The Flex Learning Corridor is an open, two-story corridor learning unit with “drop-zone” volumes for experiments related to to gravity or projectile motion. Distance markings on the floor enhance experiments related to resistance and friction. The lower level of the addition is situated one foot lower than the existing school creating a ramp for experiments. It also links the new and the existing where the old former science labs have been repurposed to provide new learning spaces for the math department. The strategic relocation of this department adjacent to the science unit encourages an integrated curriculum and joint projects.

Peer Learning the Priority:

A key aspect of the curriculum is for students to engage in peer-to-peer learning and for outside “experts” to be invited to participate in projects. The Amphitheater facilitates these activities, serving as a formal student presentation venue, a lecture hall, theater, and informal study/gathering space. The Amphitheater’s acoustics are such that a lecture or discussion can take place using a normal speaking voice without supplemental amplification. The Amphitheater’s teaching podium controls lighting, A/V projection and audio amplification. Charging stations and internet connections are available within the Amphitheater seating risers.

Simultaneous Use:

The layout of the labs with direct access to the Flex Learning Corridor allows for simultaneous use within relatively close proximity, encouraging the blending of core ideas. A classroom expanded to the corridor via the open “garage door” can carry on a lab or lecture while a discussion is taking place within the Amphitheater without disruption to either class.

Furnishings:

The typical segregation of ‘lab’ vs. ‘lecture’ space was eliminated by selecting furniture that offers a variety of arrangements that cater to that day’s lesson goals. The Science Labs are equipped with new movable lab tables on casters to provide easy reconfiguration. They feature epoxy resin tops to match the durability of resin tops of the casework.

The teaching stations include a small fixed base with power, data, and gas and water connections and a larger mobile section on casters. The white boards are also mobile. This means that the demonstration table and white boards can be configured to different seating arrangements within the room or moved to further extend teaching out into the Flex Learning Corridor during labs.