Totem Design Chronicles, Part 2: Learning With/From Tech

A quick recap of where we began: PBL + STEM = SHS 2.0.

Translation: Problem Based Learning, in which students work collaboratively to solve real-world problems that are drawn from interdisciplinary topics in Science, Technology Engineering & Math, equals a new, second generation Sammamish High School. (For more complete background discussion, please see our previous post: “In the Beginning“)


So what does a PBL-based, STEM-inspired High School 2.0 look like?  Our design team began systematically researching the most innovative high schools, both in the United States and across the world, for design inspiration. Given the broad-based, holistic nature of the program underway at Sammamish, we soon concluded that direct precedents were in short supply.  Time to shift focus. Rather than looking solely to the world of school design, we broadened our definition of learning environments to include any place where creative work was being supported by innovative design.

touch screen in air

Metropolis magazine held a “Workplace of the Future, 2.0” competition in 2014, and the diversity of entries was telling – technology is central.  And with technology comes a host of other re-imaginings: The blending of private, public and presentation spaces.  Open plans that invite collaboration but offer quiet places for contemplation.  Laptops, tablets and other devices everywhere.  Casual seating and gathering nooks. Indoor-outdoor connections, green space.  Color and sense of playfulness.

organic grid - metropolis mag

Modern offices have loosened their ties, and employees have been freed from their desks.  As a member of the Herman Miller research team explains, “Open plans are less about having individual work stations and more about having work settings.. the ability to move from setting to setting to support the type of work they are doing at that time.”  One of the winning entries foretold “the end of sitting” and proposed an open, sun-filled atrium in which masses (not furniture!) are sculpted to support postures for individual, small group and large team interactions.

no sitting

As enticing as these spaces appear, is it appropriate to reference tech-driven, boundary-blurring office spaces when designing a 2,000 student public high school?  One look at the office spaces of Facebook, and the verdict was in: YES.  Students, staff, parents and district officials saw many parallels between these environments, at least in terms of the outcomes both hope to inspire: creativity, collaboration and innovation.  For more thoughts about how we think innovate workplace environments can inform school design, check out our post from last year, “School or Workplace.

FB office wall

Back to Sammamish. To begin with, students will have plentiful access to technology. Currently, all students at Sammamish are be assigned a laptop at the beginning of each school year to ensure a “one-to-one” technology ratio.  This ensures everyone is operating with the same latest and greatest systems/software as well as access to technical support.

FB small group

Next is the blend of spaces.  While the classroom is still the basic organizational unit, educators specifically requested greater varieties of scale.  Alcoves for one-on-one meetings, small group spaces, areas for large group meetings, and forum-style presentation spaces that can accommodate several classes at once.

SHS forum fr 2nd fl

In an interview with the Washington Post, one Facebook employee reported:

“No one has a swanky office setup. The equipment is there to help you move fast and do good work. That’s it.”  The result is an unexpected freedom to focus on work. “I’m not as tied to my desk,” Russell said. “I can’t imagine being in any other work environment.”

FB small group enclosed

Applied to the high school level,”We want to make learning visible,” explained one of the science teachers. “and inspire a culture of learning… that can be lead by students.”  This means open areas, flexible groupings, transparency, connections between classrooms. Of course, acoustical considerations as well as the highly social nature of high school students can complicate these concepts.  But for the students, teachers and parents of Sammamish High School, there is no going back: learning 2.0, much like work 2.0, will happen everywhere, with collaboration and technology at the core.

SHS transparency

In our next post, we will look at how these tech-inspired ideas took shape when applied to the real-world challenges of site, existing conditions and construction phasing.  Hey, wait – sounds like a perfect opportunity to engage students in some Problem-Based Learning!  Indeed, and even better is a dynamic site design solution that resulted in large part from student input.  Stay tuned!



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