Problem Based Learning at Elgin Academy

Update and Renovate: Learning in Sears Hall

Locate 21st Century Education

My colleagues and I recently participated in the “Update and Renovate” program at Elgin Academy. The program challenged 5th through 8th grade students with the question: How could we redesign the interior of Sears Hall to maximize learning? This 6 week project began with professionals from the community sharing their expertise in the design/construction process with the students.

The incorporation of 21st Century Educational Principles into the classroom setting is something that I’m passionate about. Besides being an exercise in creativity, the Problem Based Learning project encouraged collaboration, cross-curriculum learning, research skills as well as educated participants about the design/construction process.


The students were divided into groups of 5, with one student from each group taking on the role of Project Manager, Architect, Interior Designer, Learning Specialist, or Contractor. The idea was for each of the students within the group to become the “expert” in his or her chosen field, sharing their unique expertise with the team in the overall design of a classroom space. This is where DLA made a significant contribution to the success of the project. Bruce Dahlquist taught the students about interior design, Eric Sickbert shared his experience with the remodeling of educational spaces, and Joe Cavello instructed students on how to build models and read blueprints.

This assimilation of student talents toward a common goal encouraged cooperation, collaboration, mutual respect and a sense of responsibility to each of their team members.

Problem Based Learning

This Problem Based Learning assignment tasked students to successfully design the classroom space. Multiple skills were used to contribute to the success of the design. Besides academic skills and construction knowledge, this became a lesson in social skills, teamwork, pride, commitment and responsibility. The problem was complex and it was apparent that the students made the connection between their learning and a real-world problem that was close to home for them.

Research Skills

For DLA, as an architectural firm committed to the design of 21st Century educational spaces, it was critical to share with students the importance of the Learning Specialist to their group. We encouraged these students to research what were the attributes of a successful learning environment. This would form the basis of the team’s design, consistent with DLA’s philosophy of Form Follows Learning. We stressed to the students that the work of the Project Manager, Architect, Interior Designer and the Contractor had to be the result of what the Learning Specialist identified as the educational and environmental needs of the classroom.

Design/Construction Process

In order for their vision to become reality, the students had to understand what makes a building stand up, as well as develop an appreciation for cost and budget. They also had to accept the challenge of incorporating building materials supporting the educational concepts identified by the Learning Specialist, such as the appropriate use of carpet and tile, the use of color, providing acoustical controls, as well as window placement and the importance of natural light.

The Final Middle School Classroom Design

This week, students presented their designs, far exceeding our expectations. The Learning Specialist identified the elements that should be considered in designing an educational space. Students built architectural models, used the computer to construct digital models, provided research documentation regarding middle school classroom needs, studied the structural design of the building envelope, identified environmental features in the classroom including the use of natural light, colors, acoustics, scale, flexibility in learning environment, technology as well as furniture and fixture needs. Students even prepared computer generated construction cost estimates, working toward a budget. Those whose projects came in under budget offered alternates to incorporate if the “bids would come in low”.


This project is a great model that other schools can replicate. The students clearly took the Problem Based Learning challenge seriously. They showed skills and an appreciation for collaboration, cross-curriculum learning, and research skills as well as the design/construction process that they can take with them into the future. Possibly most important was that they developed an understanding that, when on a team, they owed a responsibility to that team for the ultimate success of a project, sharing their own unique expertise to its success.