Skip to main content
Start of main content

The human sundial: How a student’s learning environment can serve as a teaching tool

March 27, 2018

School buildings can serve as a resource for learning—whether it’s energy monitoring systems or a fifth-grade class’s human sundial

As architects and building design professionals, we have the power to influence our communities and the users of our buildings for years to come. It is for us to determine if this influence is static or dynamic. Especially designing for education buildings, where spaces have the sole purpose of being used to teach, the question we often ask ourselves is: can the building itself be a resource for learning and teaching?

Some learning tools we have incorporated in schools include way finding within the building that teaches about measurements, angles, geography, local plants, and simple machines. These all can be tied to the curriculum—and what better way for kids to remember a concept than walking into the school corridor and experiencing it for themselves?

Students and adults work together at a Texas elementary school to decorate numbers that will depict the clock hours on a human sundial.

As we cater to a new generation of students who are constantly learning to be good stewards of the environment, there is an opportunity for us—as designers of high-performing, sustainable buildings—to showcase the sustainable features in their learning environments and help them practice what they are learning in their own schools. This is what got us into incorporating sustainability-related learning tools, including:

  • Rainwater-collection tanks with gauges revealing how much water is being collected and troughs for using the water in learning eco-gardens.
  • Small-scale solar panels and windmills with displays showing the amount of electricity generated.
  • Comprehensive digital dashboards presenting in real-time how various features of the building are contributing toward the building’s efficiency.
  • Incorporating tools and sub-metering to allow for grade-level or classroom-wing-level competitions in schools, leading to everyone aiming to have the lowest energy usage.

Students interact with a digital display to learn real-time building performance at Gloria Marshall Elementary School.

One tool that has been used for centuries to understand the environment is the sundial. It was used when there were no clocks or watches. As the sun moved in the sky, the shadows formed by a vertical stick or a pillar (also called a gnomon) showed the time of the day. These sundials have been used from elementary school to higher education to learn about shadows, seasons, the Earth’s tilt, daylight saving time, and much more. Even as architecture students, we used sundials to understand how the sun moves in the sky, which in turn helped us figure out how we can better respond to it when we design buildings.

We have used this concept of a sundial in many schools as a dynamic teaching tool, but we have designed it to be a “human sundial” in the school’s landscape.

A human sundial is … much more of an interactive learning tool.

A human sundial is like a traditional sundial in the way that it tells time with a shadow—the difference is that a student stands in the right place to cast the shadow instead of a permanent gnomon. This makes the sundial much more of an interactive learning tool.

When my daughters’ elementary school PTA started looking at ideas for a gift that the outgoing fifth graders could give back to the school, I proposed the human sundial. I co-lead the Sustainability Research + Benchmarking program at Stantec and have been a proponent of environmental stewardship in the schools we design, and I was thrilled for the opportunity to do something for an older school building.

The project budget came from the money the PTA raised from the fifth-grade parents, which could only help with paying for the materials. The school community donated their time to build the project. Many parents came together to set the pavers, build sidewalk, and lay decomposed granite. Several tile vendors donated tiles for the project, too.

The most satisfying part was being able to involve each fifth-grade student, with the help of the art teacher, in decorating the pavers and the class plaque, and writing numbers with penny tiles to depict the hours.

The completed human sundial is a source of pride for the school community.

The class felt a sense of ownership and took pride in what they were leaving behind for a school that did so much for them in their elementary years. For a school that was built more than 40 years ago—and has grown in capacity only by adding portables—this permanent feature that the students helped create has given them an opportunity to share their resource with the other schools in the neighborhood and the community.

At Stantec, we promise to design with community in mind. Initiatives such as these truly contribute toward that promise. The hurdles that we face with low budgets for public education facilities are real, but an example such as this—professionals, vendors, community members, a school, teachers, and students coming together to create learning opportunities in a public property for everyone—encourages us to continue looking for ways to design in a manner that makes learning accessible to all.

Some of the content in this blog was a result of our Research + Benchmarking program, which ensures we provide our clients with the most innovative solutions, supported by real research and actual practice.

End of main content
To top