The Jewel of the Community

If an elementary school student could design a school, what would it look like? What types of facilities and resources would the building offer?

When we posed these questions to more than 100 children, they offered all sorts of creative ideas: monkey bars in the hallways to get to classrooms, whale tanks, tracks for go-carts and race cars, fast-food restaurants, and ice-cream shops. Giant- screen TVs. Swimming pools with slides. And always, elevators and escalators.

Many of the responses might have been the same had we polled children 25 years ago. But other responses really made us reflect as architects and engineers upon where schools are headed.

Students offered insightful and conscientious suggestions: Daycare and preschool for small children in every school; museums, zoos, aquariums, and parks on school grounds; access to gardens and greenhouses; more accessibility for the disabled; and more opportunities for students to interact with the community-with businesses, stores and public services. There also were some visionary and progressive ideas: classrooms in space, virtual-reality labs, gravity-free rooms and "holodecks."

The way we see it, the students' ideas are probably on target. And that will make the next few generations of school design extremely exciting.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back We envision that much of what we will see in schools two or three decades from now will be completely different. Schools will reflect breakthrough technologies; teaching methods that have evolved to meet social, economic and cultural needs; and design and construction innovations.

But facilities also will reflect a return to what has worked in the past-a return to a time when schools were the center of the community.

A century ago, schools in this country began to offer more to communities than simply an education for children. Many schools provided social services, a place to meet, and important resources to growing towns and rural areas.

Over time, a shift occurred. We tucked our schools away as safe, protected islands of learning and harbored students from the goings-on of surrounding communities. We educated our students, but did little to involve and engage them outside of their school environment.

Schools of the future will return to a central role within the community, and as a result will generate limitless opportunities for students. Society will place a greater premium on the value of education to communities. People of all ages will begin to recognize the tremendous resources available in their local schools: academic, cultural, and recreational facilities and programs.

The scarcity of land and community resources will bring schools back into the heart of the community. Schools often will be shared community facilities and situated in campus settings along with auditoriums, gymnasiums, media centers, social-services offices and daycare centers. We may see more frequent examples of schools clustered on single parcels of land, such as public schools with public charter schools, private schools or community colleges.

Schools will become a focal point in urban planning and bring educational facilities closer to the community-including retirement homes (a vital source of mentors and tutors), businesses, museums, zoos, parks, and other academic and public institutions. Facilities for health care, counseling, police services, etc., will be nearby, if not contained within the school buildings themselves.

The Flow of Information Information that once took hours or days to obtain now is available in minutes. Technology has radically transformed research and information-processing and will continue to do so. Schools of the future will tap into information much as we use electricity today-we don't have to think about it, because it's so accessible. Among the breakthroughtechnologies envisioned for schools are huge media walls, handheld or watch-size d computers and instant messaging units, virtual reality labs and "smart furniture."

But information also will be just as accessible in homes, businesses, cars or other modes of transportation-nearly everywhere we go. This will, in many ways, de-centralize how students obtain a traditional formal education. Future students will have access to learning in all sorts of environments.

Schools, however, will continue to be an important home base, as we learn more about how to work and live together. Classroom-based "lecture" learning will diminish, while hands-on, exploratory, active learning will increase (another re-emerging concept from a century or so ago).

For example, schools will offer a host of facilities to explore the environment-not just the earth, but the greater realm of space-with laboratories, greenhouses, planetariums, and spacestation models and simulators. What can't be offered in the schools themselves will be available through virtual reality or distance learning-visits to rainforests, oceans, deserts, foreign cities and into space.

Schools will offer more facilities where students can create and perform-sophisticated and well-appointed places to celebrate the human spirit and imagination. Auditoriums, theaters, art centers, music labs, and other spaces for the performing and fine arts will become vital components of the school building. Everyone in the community will use them.

The schoolhouse is poised to become "the jewel of the community." Schools truly will be multifaceted jewels that will serve their students and communities in rich and wonderful ways.

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