Paul Erickson

Get Smart

Oct. 4, 2021
Here are some of the elements that can help transform your facility into a “smart” school.

What is a “smart” school? People have differing opinions and definitions, but five main elements rise to the top: people, educational materials, technology, processes, and designed environment.

A smart school is a technology-based teaching and learning environment that prepares students through skilled staff, well-designed teaching, learning, and supporting processes, and through an engaging physical environment that takes advantage of internet tools, technology software, and mobile personal devices. The concept embodies a holistic approach to learning and engagement for anyone, anytime and anywhere.

What are some of the elements that contribute to a school’s “smart” status?

A smart school uses building operations software that is designed to manage systems (e.g., lighting, ventilation, security). Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems operate through wireless technologies and energy management systems software, providing effectual environmental conditions for learning. Occupancy sensors, air ionization technology for indoor air quality, room temperature controls, and noise sensors keep learning spaces operating at levels for peak performance. LED electrical light fixtures with room occupancy and daylight sensors make for efficiencies in energy use and maintenance, as well as providing effectual lighting for teaching and learning activities. 

Security systems integrate video surveillance and wireless card reader access to ensure a safe physical environment for teaching and learning. The technology tracks and records data detailing the dates and times when building access occurs, as well as who operates the card. In addition, special sensors that record body temperatures keep an environment healthful and safe for all users.

Administrative management technologies centralize and automate school processes and records, incorporating enterprise resource planning and learning management systems to make school administrative infrastructure and functions simplified and more user-friendly. Daily functions are organized through technology, that incorporates student, teacher, and staff data, identification badges, attendance tracking systems, assessment models, student arrival-departure mechanisms, communications management, and financial record-keeping.

Teaching and learning software technologies offer autonomy to students, support collaboration, and extend the learning day through social networks and email communications, in company with project-based gaming activities, multimedia presentations, online conferencing, remote learning, and “flipping” the classroom. The concept of flipping enables students to learn online remotely and then use their time at school for teacher or peer facilitation, collaboration, tutoring, and support.

For a school to be future-ready, it is imperative to build infrastructure into the building (i.e., in walls, ceilings and floors) that accommodates present and future technology implementation and access. Though it may be difficult to predict a school facility’s future needs, design professionals can inspire school entities to leapfrog into new technologies for building operations, facilities management, and teaching and learning.

Smart schools should be designed to have wifi portals everywhere to support student-centered learning. This will enable teachers to engage learners to explore, experiment, and connect globally with specialists and peers. The schools should furnish students with tools for learning, including interactive, smart TVs, eBooks, electronic tablets, personal mobile devices, computers, 3D printers, and new technologies that support and enhance student-centered learning.

A smart school is respectful of the environment and efficient in its consumption of fossil fuel energy. The building envelope (roof, walls, windows, entrances) is energy-efficient and designed with building orientation in mind, considering daylighting, solar gain, shading, and prevalent winds.

Successful design solutions incorporate high-performance systems, sustainable building products, and natural elements, thus reducing energy consumption with the goal of net-zero energy use.    

A smart facility design incorporates inclusive and universal features that enhance the learning and teaching experience. Designs that support student-centered learning with a variety of technology-rich spaces for individual study, group collaboration, project-based learning, and hands-on applications are recognized as smart schools.

Everyone learns differently and one size does not fit all. Planners understand that is essential to provide learners with future-ready solutions. Smart schools have small and large group rooms, areas for presenting and socializing (e.g., learning stairs, areas open to circulation paths), maker spaces (e.g., for messy creations, collaborative exploration), vertical and horizontal transparency from one space to another (e.g., for engaging curiosity and discovery), and easy wayfinding pathways with signage for occupants.

Introducing biophilic design strategies elevates a building’s smartness, integrating human connections with nature into the built environment and optimizing spaces for enhanced personal mental health and wellness. Incorporate elements such as: a nature-focused environment (e.g., earth tones, vegetation); lines, shapes and forms in nature (e.g., arches, paths); patterns and processes in nature (e.g., rhythm, scale); sun and daylight (e.g., indoor-to-outdoor transparency); relationship with vegetation (e.g., plant colors, views); and human-to-nature relationship (e.g., order, complexity).

Unlimited ideas for biophilic design can be included in the built education environment to provide students with a platform for improved overall academic performance.

At its most basic, a smart school recognizes that the happiness and well-being of students and staff are as important as technology and energy efficiency.

Get on track to design your new school or retrofit your existing school to be a smart school. Incorporate these five elements: people, educational materials, technology, processes, and designed environment. Your school can be shaped into a technology-based teaching and learning environment that prepares students through skilled staff, well-designed teaching, learning, and supporting processes, and through an engaging physical environment that embodies a holistic approach to learning and engagement for anyone, anytime and anywhere.

Paul W. Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, executive officer & partner, is past president of ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Erickson has 40+ years of specializing in school planning, design, and construction. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information visit

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