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Happier, smarter and more engaged students. Can design do that?

Finding a way to quantify the positive impacts architecture has on the success of students and faculty

By Diego Barrera, Plano, TX  

Does architecture have an impact on a student’s ability to learn? This is the age-old question. As a design architect in our education group, my belief is that it most certainly does. Throughout the past nine years, I have worked to design thoughtful educational environments that positively impact students. I believe that appropriate design can enhance the educational experience. But in the back of my mind, the question about the real, measurable impact of design continues to linger. It is hard to measure design and even harder to measure its results. However, it’s not impossible.

In the fall of 2014, Richard J. Lee Elementary School opened its doors to a crowd of excited students and teachers in Coppell, Texas. Along with the normal excitement that comes with the first day of school, these students and teachers where eager to enter a school different than any other educational facility in Texas. Not only is Lee Elementary School the first net-zero elementary in Texas, it is also a first in many other regards. This school is the realization of the Coppell School District’s vision that elementary education should be delivered differently than the traditional model--that collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, and project-based learning are key components in elementary education. The district realized that to achieve this vision, they needed a unique design to provide them with a facility that encouraged this new type of learning. Our designers were up for the challenge, and provided a design that translated the district’s vision into a school building that (theoretically) would provide greater opportunities for learning – and do so in a measurable way.

Students, teachers, the principal, and Coppell Independent School District (ISD) love this new school. Educators and architects from across the country travel thousands of miles to tour this revolutionary school, and it has won (and continues to win) numerous awards. But the question lingers. Does the design of this new facility have an impact on the students? Are Lee Elementary School students happier, smarter, or more engaged in this school as opposed to traditional/older schools in the district?

In my role as leader of our Innovative Learning Environments Research and Benchmarking group, I set out to find an answer. I wanted to see if we could somehow find qualitative results proving that Lee’s physical environment directly correlated to student’s cognitive and behavioral reality. Coppell ISD was interested, too. So we partnered with Coppell and Texas A&M University’s Professor Xuemei Zhu and developed a research project that would answer this very question.

For the past year and an half we’ve been surveying the students and teachers at the new elementary school and those at an older elementary school in Coppell. The first stage of this study is complete, and the outcome is favorable. So far, the results show that in all areas of behavior and learning, students at the new Lee Elementary school are reporting higher satisfaction then those students attending the district’s old elementary school. We’re currently conducting our second round of research, and are excited to share those results this fall.

We’re on our way to answering that age-old question whether the physical design of a school campus quantifiably impacts a student’s ability to learn and remain engaged. This is Part 1 in our series on this topic. Up next?  Professor Zhu will weigh-in on the research and its findings in much greater depth, along with what this could mean to the future of education design. Stay tuned!

Diego Barrera is a design architect focused on Education projects in Texas. He specializes in creating innovative solutions using the latest technology, resources, and trends affecting educational architecture. 

We’re on our way to answering that age-old question whether the physical design of a school campus quantifiably impacts a student’s ability to learn and remain engaged

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