Totem Design Chronicles, Part 1: In the Beginning…

American teenagers have been immersed in technology since childhood, with many swiping touch-screens since birth. The fluency with which they operate devices has shifted the landscape of personal and spatial relationships. For example, the fastest way to get my teenage daughter downstairs to dinner is to text her. Yet for all their savvy as technology consumers, teenagers as students are struggling to meet basic academic standards of college and career readiness. Learning new technology requires curiosity, persistence and many other qualities that align with learning in an academic setting. So how can a generation that had so much access to knowledge be falling so short on acquiring it? Over a series of posts, we will explore how the Sammamish High School community in Bellevue, WA is responding to these challenges through a holistic re-imagining of both curriculum and school design – and role of technology in both.

baby iphone

iBaby, circa 2016.

According to “The Nation’s Report Card” published by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), only 38% of high school seniors are grade-level proficient in reading. The numbers go down from there: 27% in writing, 26% in math. Another report from ACT, Inc, states that only 25% met the College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subjects [English, Math, Science, Reading.]



Disengaged teenagers? Or 21st century students in a 20th century learning environment?

To complicate matters, researchers warn these scores fail to tell the whole story. “Testing to see how much students can memorize and how well they can follow the instructions is no longer good enough,” writes Alan Friedman, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board “It’s crucial to know if students understand … how to draw the best of all possible solutions.”


achievmt gapAccording to educational theorist Tony Wagner, American schools are becoming “dangerously obsolete,” not because of poor test scores, but because they cling to an outmoded notion of learning.
In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Wagner argues that “21st century skills” such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and effective communication, are far more important for young people to learn in order to compete in the modern “global knowledge economy.”

The proliferation of STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math), then STEAM (add Art) and now STREAM (add Robotics) programs proves that educators are wasting no time in responding to calls for change. More than just re-writing curriculum, many schools are re-envisioning the culture of learning. Flipped classrooms. Problem and/or Project-based learning. Maker Spaces. Innovation Labs. While programs vary in implementation, all emphasize STEM/STEAM/STREAM content aimed at building 21st century skills.


Students at Bayside STEM Academy working on a prototype.

Shift now to Sammamish High School, where staff members had the unique opportunity to apply a holistic STEM-informed vision to their capital replacement plan. In September 2010, they received an $4.1 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. With this grant, a faculty leadership team restructure course curriculum across all subject areas to be grounded in Problem Based Learning (PBL).  According to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, “PBL instruction is built around challenges, where students develop expertise, products or solutions, and regularly work with experts in the industry to develop or present their final products.” Along with curriculum redesign came establishing partnerships with local business experts in STEM-related industries such as Microsoft and Boeing.


After a year of pedagogical research, curriculum writing and faculty training, Sammamish teachers, along with a core team of students, parents and community members, met our team of architects and district planners at the design table. Everything from schematic level building organization, form and scale down to wall finish detailing was considered through the lens of hands-on, inquiry-driven Problem Based Learning. Over a series of posts, we will explore both the process and product of our efforts. We hope the lessons learned from Sammamish High School will contribute to the spirit of innovative, collaborative and creative design that is emerging in support of 21st century learning.


Sammamish High School Staff celebrate the completion of their new Study Commons.

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