Learning Laboratories

Private schools invest in state-of-the-art science and technology facilities

Private schools invest in state-of-the-art science and technology facilities

By Jennifer J. and Richard S. Salopek


Courtesy of Flint Hill School

Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic: Once the foundation of a good education, the “Three Rs” will no longer cut it in the 21st century workplace. That’s according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a grassroots group comprising 39 members representing America’s leading business, technology and education organizations. For the nation to compete in the global marketplace, schools must equip students with a broad range of skills in addition to learned knowledge, the group says, including environmental literacy, critical thinking, problem solving and information and communications technology literacy.

Future Virginia economic development depends on a skilled workforce, says Glen Bull, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Technology & Teacher Education at UVA’s Curry School of Education. Bull studies how science teaching might change if engineering is integrated into the curriculum. The need is pressing, he says: “Textile manufacturing and furniture making, once mainstays of Virginia’s economy, have seen their jobs go overseas. We can address unemployment with high-paying, skilled jobs if we prepare our students to be part of the workforce of the future.”

Bull notes that the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by many states, call for making engineering coequal to science in K-12 education.

Private schools in Northern Virginia and across the state recognize the need. They are redesigning their curricula—and their facilities—to incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) concepts. Often, traditionally planned private school campuses constrain educators in their implementation of STEM curricula due to the inherent inflexibility of many older building structures and physical separation of various disciplines, which limits opportunities to create collaborative learning environments. Many schools are investing in master planning and new building designs that provide the right mix of highly interconnected, interdisciplinary teaching spaces that support 21stcentury learning.

Flint Hill School, a private, college preparatory school in Oakton, has been working with Bowie Gridley Architects, a Georgetown firm that specializes in private schools. The conversation about curriculum and facilities is a two-way one, says Headmaster John Thomas.

“Our facilities are purpose-built. We have benefited from the architecture and the opportunities to think about our program and approach, just as we try to have the architecture of the buildings reflect the mission of the school in general. The building design allows us to incorporate the current thinking around STEM.”

piscopal High School’s Baker Science Center (Courtesy of GUND Partnership/Photos by Michael Dersin)

The T in STEM stands for technology. Flint Hill is a 1:1 school, which means that every lower-school student has the use of an iPad; students in grades 5 through 12 receive a MacBook Air. The technology furthers the curricular conversation: “As we began to utilize them, we began thinking about how the devices would be used in our science and math instruction.”

A new upper school robotics lab was completed a year ago; the science building features large open areas and a balcony around the second floor creates a mezzanine that is filled with space and light. “There is constantly some experiment coming over the railing,” Thomas says. Two science labs are currently being renovated for the lower and middle schools that feature open space and flexible furniture arrangements. New this year is a middle-school “maker’s space,” a 600-square-foot open-layout area filled with supplies and equipment for fabrication and experimentation.

These elements reflect current trends in learning space design, says John Prokos, managing principal at the Gund Partnership in Cambridge, Mass. The firm has seen an increase in interest in science buildings from clients at the private school and college levels, including Episcopal High School in Alexandria, which opened its state-of-the-art Baker Science Center in 2005. It was ahead of the curve.

“We began designing it 10 years ago, at the beginning of a very strong trend that has continued,” Prokos says. “STEM study is almost a guaranteed ticket to employment. Its methods of exploration serve well in almost any career.”

Science-building clients want a lot of the same things, he says: dedicated labs for chemistry, physics, biology and environmental science; flexible layouts and walls; moveable furniture; greenhouses; and space for impromptu meetings and conversations. The Baker Science Center features two wings joined by a striking glass rotunda that introduces the modern while respecting the traditional Georgian architecture of the rest of the campus. The space is dramatic, with a large sculpture of a molecular model by artist Kendall Buster. The building was one of the first LEED Silver-certified classroom buildings in the area.

Some schools take a more incremental approach. Bishop O’Connell, a Catholic coed high school in Arlington, has been evaluating its physical plant over the past three years, according to Headmaster Joe Vorbach. With the help of Reston architecture firm SHW Group, the school renovated its chemistry labs in the summer of 2012 and three physics and two biology labs this past summer.

Senior Sarah Chiang from Potomac School competing in a VEX Robotics competition (Courtesy of Potomac School)

“The need for the U.S. K-12 educational system to improve its effectiveness in STEM education has definitely been the driver of the conversation; 21st-century skills are another thread, as is the trend toward active, student-centered learning,” Vorbach says. “The science lab experience is one of the best examples of that kind of learning.”

Curriculum drives the space design and the selection of furnishings. For example, it’s difficult to have an engineering class in a traditional science lab, and it wouldn’t be desirable to share space with a biology lab. In O’Connell’s “Introduction to Engineering” class, students construct cylinders of concrete, then crush them.

“The facilities facilitate working in groups and have totally changed the classroom dynamic,” Vorbach says.

Investing in STEM education and facilities may be even more important for girls, says Megan Murphy, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. “Students at all-girls’ schools are six times more likely to pursue undergraduate majors in STEM subjects, and three times more likely to major in engineering,” she says. “As girls’ schools are preparing a disproportionate number of future STEM professionals, the facilities are particularly important.”

The way teachers teach science has changed over the past 40 years, moving to an emphasis on hands-on inquiry, Nancy Habenicht, co-chair of the science department at the Richmond all-girls school St. Catherine’s School, says. The school recently opened its Armfield Science Center due to the increase student interest in STEM subjects. Teachers provide information, then give students a problem to solve. “It’s the way real science is done, and it demands facilities,” she says.

Like the new educational approach, designing 21st-century facilities requires a highly collaborative, interactive partnership between building designers and educators. They must work closely to ensure that the new facilities are highly adaptable and flexible to meet evolving needs and support interactions between students and teachers, just as the latest facilities in the tech industry are.

Science facilities and technology are an important part of the competitive advantage for private schools, in their quest for full enrollment at a price tag that often rivals that of colleges. In 2012-13, the median day school tuition in the Metro-D.C. area was $28,975. The median boarding tuition was $48,825. “The admissions market in this area is very competitive,” says Myra McGovern, senior director of public information at the National Association of Independent Schools. “In fact, I’d call it an arms race. And facilities are important to attracting students.”

Prokos uses the term “arms race” too. “Once one school builds, the others must keep pace. Parents and students are looking for state-of-the-art academic facilities that must show well on campus tours,” he says.

Upper school tuition at Flint Hill is $33,000 a year. The school offers a robotics program in lower school; elementary students also participate in the classic “egg drop” challenge. Middle school students design and build their own rollercoasters.

“Prospective families are often very impressed; it’s not what they expected to see. But although our curriculum and facilities help to set us apart, it’s the good, sound education that prepares kids for the world,” Thomas says.

Even with a relatively modest $12,500 annual price tag at O’Connell, Vorbach views the school’s facilities as a part of its competitive advantage. “Families come to private schools and ask, ‘What do you offer? How does the school distinguish itself?’” The school plans to utilize its newly renovated facilities in delivering an innovative, robust engineering curriculum from Project Lead the Way that has been independently validated.

Six years ago, McLean’s Potomac School created a Science and Engineering Research Center, a selective, application-required, four-year program for students interested in high-level independent scientific research. The program is headed by Director Bill Wiley. The eight students who are selected must identify a research topic, submit a proposal, and secure a mentor in an outside lab; Potomac students have successfully connected with mentors at such organizations as the National Institutes of Health and universities as far away as Australia. One female student who is a junior this year was invited to continue her research this past summer at the University of Minnesota.

Wiley is an electromechanical engineer and computer scientist by training, rather than an educator. This may be the next trend we see in STEM education in private and public schools alike: classes taught by professional subject-matter experts rather than ed school-trained teachers. This is easier in private schools, which typically have fewer, if any, licensing requirements for teachers.

At public schools, teacher preparation has a long way to go, says Bull. “Only 7 percent of science teachers have ever taken an engineering class. … Schools of education are rethinking how they prepare science teachers.”

However, it’s important to stay focused on the ultimate goal, Bull says: learning outcomes. There are no Virginia Standards of Learning for engineering yet. He and his colleagues are designing a lab school at Curry to test the best approaches for teaching STEM topics, to understand where science and engineering standards align, and to pilot and assess teaching methods.

Another likely iteration of the trend is the integration of art with science and math curricula. A group called STEM to STEAM is leading the way. In a blog post published last fall, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote: ”Design creates the innovative products and solutions that will propel our economy forward, and artists ask the deep questions about humanity that reveal which way forward actually is. Sustaining arts education in its own right remains critically important. But equally important is taking a page from schools that have been successful at integrating the arts into STEM curriculum.”

Patrick F. Bassett, NAIS president, sums up: “Re-conceiving K-12 education in the STEM/STEAM context has implications for schools beyond the curricular imperative to re-think what to teach and how to teach, particularly in terms of where we teach and learn, and that has immense implications in terms of how we renovate and build school spaces and places. In the school of the future, the buildings will be, in part, the textbook for STEM and STEAM.”

—Jennifer J. Salopek is a McLean-based freelance writer. Richard S. Salopek, AIA, is a principal with Bowie Gridley Architects in Washington, D.C.


(November 2013)