Design Features for Project-Based Learning
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CASE STUDIES
       The conference provided several case studies of innovative alternatives in 
learning environments. I have gone into more depth in the case studies that were most pertinent to the foci of this study. The titles of the case studies were those given by the 
presenters. 
        Case Study 1 -- Open and Flexible Learning Spaces [Heinavaara Elementary 
School]
. Reino Tapaninen as Chief Architect of the National Board of Education in 
Helsinki, Finland, opened his remarks for the case study with a presentation slide 
showing a line of "identical blockheads" emerging in a straight line from a "block" school 
building. Recognizing that learning needs to be taking place differently for societal and 
economical reasons, Finland had changed its educational system to be learner centered, 
cooperative, and project-based. 
       The Heinavaara Elementary School was designed two years ago through a 
cooperative agreement between Finnish architects and Cuningham Group, led by Bruce 
Jilk. The school is located north of Helsinki and is designed for 190 learners. According 
to Tapaninen, learners are involved with projects all day long. The learners learn, study, 
and assess together and proceed at their own levels. They work in small and large groups, 
use technology to access information, have panel discussions and assemblies, create 
displays, and give presentations. 
       Recognizing that schools also provide a place for social growth, Heinavaara 
Elementary was designed to be a place that learners: (a) bonded with, (b) belonged to, (c) 
met with peers, and (d) took part in the learning process and life together. The spaces 
allow for different sized groups, have laboratories for experimentation, and have 
individual workspaces. Teachers learn and experiment with the learners and are located 
in the middle of the learning spaces. In keeping with the nature of projects, dining was 
available in small "cafes" that are open all day with no prescribed times to eat.

Design Features of the Physical Environment
       According to Tapaninen, flexibility, openness, and visibility of learning at 
Heinavaara result from designing the facility around a central resource area
. There are 
student sharing spaces, like gazebos, only for the learners. Production of information and 
projects occur in large open spaces rather than in rooms separated by corridors. 

Comfortable and versatile furniture, and soft and inviting lighting are important features 
that support learner centered, collaborative, project-based learning. 
       An urban environment was created in the design of the school. The outside 
entrance was designed like a city square to provide a gathering space. From this square, 
each workshop area had its own outside entrance or the learners could enter through the 
main door and pass by a large hearth at the center of the plaza. The hearth provided a 
"warm start" to the day.
From the plaza, there were streets with cafes, net surfing and 
media bars; and a large information resource area. The streets lead to the workshop 
spaces. The building is also used a learning tool in that the night sky is painted on the 
ceiling and signage in the building is written using other languages.

       Case Study 2 -- Designing a Place for Problem Solving: The Center for Applied 
Technology and Career Exploration. Daniel Duke, professor of educational leadership 
and the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Educational Design at the University 
of Virginia, began his presentation with a story about one of the site tours from the 
previous evening. After visiting a K-8 Montessori School in Amsterdam, the tour bus was 
unable to maneuver a street corner due to a parked car. There were no alternate routes. To 
solve the problem, the bus driver asked for six volunteers to get out of the bus, lift the 
car, and place it on the sidewalk, thus, giving the bus enough room to get around the 
corner. Duke asked the conference participants, "Can we do this for education reform?" 
       Four years ago, the community of Rocky Mount, Virginia, needed to address a 
high dropout rate and at the same time needed a new middle school. The new middle 
school was designed as a Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration. The per 
capital income for the region was less than $16,000; forty percent of the adults had less 
than a high school diploma, and 32 percent of the students were eligible for free lunches. 
The preference would have been to build a traditional middle school for 1000 learners. 
The cost would have been $14 million dollars, but the community had passed a $7 
million dollar bond.
       Duke explained that the educators and community recognized the 8th grade is a 
crucial year and often is the time of "losing them [the students]" from the school system. 
Through a community-based design process, the community created a school focused on 
career clusters and project-based learning. The aspiration was to keep the learners in 
school and to begin to prepare them for careers. 
       Because of the funding limitation, it was decided to build a school for 500 
learners. Half of the middle school students would attend the school for half of the year. 
The other 500 learners would remain at the existing school. The groups switch locations 
mid-year. During the 18-week semester at the Center for Applied Technology and Career 
Exploration, each learner selects three, six-week career modules. The learner spends each 
day of the six-week period in that module.
       The learning is based on real community issues that need to be solved. The 
learners present her/his findings to community agencies, local governments, and to 
boards. The modules provide team learning, problem solving, improved oral and written 
communication skills, clarification of career paths, and the opportunity to develop a work 
ethic comprised of responsibility, initiative, and dependability.

Design Features of the Physical Environment
       Duke explained the school is designed as a center with no traditional classrooms, 
laboratories, cafeteria, or gym. There is an electronic library, one computer per two 
learners, individual workstations rather than desks, a commons that provides food service 
for a three-hour time block to better accommodate the problem-based learning process, 
storage in each workstation, and access to the local YMCA for physical fitness activities
.
       Case Study 3 -- Designing for the Unknown. [Alpha High School]. Norm Dull, 
architect with Dull Olson Weeks, described the dilemma of designing learning facilities 
for a future that is unknown. Educators request facilities that are flexible and adaptable in 
hopes of gaining a facility that will be as usable in thirty years as it is today. One high 
school his firm designed is Alpha High School (AHS) in Gresham, Oregon, in the 
Portland Metropolitan area. Alpha High School is an alternative high school designed 
around the needs of the learners. Two goals for the learners are: (a) to develop a positive 
self-image, and (b) to gain skills necessary to be employed upon graduation.
       For half of the day the learners are at Alpha High School taking academic courses 
to graduate, and the other half of the day the learners are at a work site. As much as 
possible, the curricula for the academic courses is designed using projects or service 
learning. The projects range from growing plants for a stream restoration in a National 
Forest to learning about running a small business such as video production or bicycle 
repair. Over 200 business partners come into the school to provide guidance and school-
to-work experiences. The school also has space for small business incubators in which 
the learners are given the opportunity to observe and participate in the business. 

Design Features of the Physical Environment
       Dull pointed out the most impressive design feature of AHS is the ability to move 
all the walls and cabinetry
in the learning portions of both floors. Learning spaces can be 
created for groups as small as 10 and the total area can be opened up to house over 200 
people. The administrative area of the school can be secured so that the facility can be 
used by others in the evenings and weekends.
       Two other noticeable design features about the AHS that differs from the 
traditional comprehensive high school are: (a) the lack of a large parking lot and (b) its 
small size.
Not much parking area is needed because the learners and community users 
have easy access to public transportation with AHS being located next to light-rail and 
bus lines. Again, the size of the AHS remains small with having just half of the learner 
population at the facility at one time, while the other half are at work sites. 
       The design does not include a traditional library, cafeteria, or a gymnasium. 
Alpha High School partners with the public library, which is located a few blocks away 
and because the learners are at the facility only half of the day, they do not need full meal 
service provided on-site or an onsite gymnasium. There is a snack center with vending 
machines and a microwave to heat food. Alpha High School is the cornerstone of an 
urban redevelopment project in Gresham, Oregon, and is used as a community center in 
the evenings and weekends by local Senior Centers and Mt. Hood Community College. 

The Space Workshop 
       Six design theme workshops held at the conference were: (a) Location, (b) Space, 
(c) Time, (d) Scale, (e) Cost, and (f) Context. I participated in the Space Workshop and 
explain the process of the workshop in the study because it served to guide the design of 
Phase III of this study. I also describe the features of the physical learning environment 
that were identified during the workshop that were pertinent to this study. 
       The description of the Space Workshop read, "…the basic building block of a 
school design has been the classroom, a setting supportive of lecture-style instruction." 
The question given to the workshop participants was, "How should the spaces for 
learning be designed to accommodate new learning approaches, specifically for the Study 
House concept?" The Study House concept (Meijer, 1996), was developed in the early 
1990's by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science in response to education 
reform and implemented in 1997. The Study House prepares learners at the secondary 
level to enter a bachelor's degree level university in The Netherlands and accommodates 
both academic and vocational opportunities. The concept develops critical thinking, 
relevancy to the learning, and responsibility for planning one's own learning by: (a) 
working on projects more independently and in small groups and (b) teachers being more 
of a coach than an instructor. The physical learning environment to support a Study 
House includes spaces of varying sizes to support teacher/faculty-led instruction, 
individual work, small and large group work, project work, and access to technology and 
other resources. Elly Reinders, Jan Wagemaker, and Jeff Lackney were the workshop 
facilitators. 

       Design Process. The process began with a question to the workshop participants 
to think back to a successful learning experience and to make note of the following 
things: (a) what was the learning experience, (b) what activity was occurring, (c) where 
were they, and (d) who were they with. The workshop participants discussed their 
experiences with the others at the table, wrote the information from the above questions 
on large sheets of paper, posted the sheets of paper on the wall, and the workshop group 
discussed the experiences looking for common patterns or themes. The facilitators of the 
workshop analyzed the information and determined that 77 percent of the listed learning 
experiences took place outside of school-based learning activities and settings. 
       To further stimulate the workshop participants' thinking about educational 
experiences, video clips from The Dead Poet's Society movie were shown. The movie 
was about a residential college preparatory school for young men. The clips included 
scenes depicting the structure of the school's physical setting, social structures, learning 
practices, and a parent's influence on a young person's educational and life choices. 
       The workshop participants self-formed into three groups and were asked to design 
a space for a "Study House." As each group began the process, the facilitators became 
aware that the groups were each and collectively resisting the assignment. The groups 
wanted to focus on the philosophical concept of whole communities becoming learning 
communities, taking the learning out into the community, and bringing the community 
into the learning process rather than focus on designing a particular type of facility or a 
singular concept. The facilitators allowed the groups to proceed in the new direction and 
also noted that each group had developed its own process to complete the assignment. 
The facilitators named the three groups: (a) the "verbal group" [that wanted to talk and 
talk], (b) the "kinesthetic group" [who wanted to begin to design immediately], and (c) 
the "future group" [who began with an initial discussion of what learning may be like in 
the future and then moved into the design phase].
      After the majority of the time being spent in discussion, the verbal group in which 
I participated, produced three learning diagrams in the last ninety minutes before the 
report-out session to the whole conference. The first diagram illustrated the development 
of the learning process along the age spectrum from birth to high school. The group 
member who drew the diagram explained that in his view, learning initially started in a 
contained, fairly safe, box-like, environment and through elementary education a few 
holes and tears began to appear in the box as the learner discovered more knowledge. By 
middle school one or two sides of the box had been kicked out and by graduation from 
high school, it was his hope that all four sides would have been flattened.
       The second diagram showed the dynamic links between learning sites all over the 
city or geographic area. The connections varied with some being one-way, others were 
two-way, some were formal and others were informal links.
       Wanting to develop a more in-depth learning community, the third diagram 
(Figure 2.) had four "streets" or "pathways." The intersection of the four streets was 
a basic core learning area with resources, media, computers, and staff. In each of the four 
directions from the central learning core was one of the following learning spaces: (a) 
personal spaces for students and the community; (b) project-group spaces; (c) exploratory 
spaces for science, equipment, and technologies; and (d) social experience and activities 
spaces. The diagram showed direct flow in and out of all of the spaces, using wireless and 
Internet technologies, community providers as teachers, and learning staff going out into 
the community. The social experience and activities area also provided community 
support services and a basic commons area for the community, learners, and staff.
       The kinesthetic group built a three-dimensional model using construction paper 
and added accessories to simulate the built environment. The learning community was 
built around and into a lake, using the lake as one pod for learning. The learning was 
interdisciplinary with a multicultural, multidirectional, and whole community focus. 
       The future group looked to the year 2025 and created a learning village within one 
structure. The structure housed cinemas, markets, cafes, offices, and meeting spaces all 
providing a sense of "voyeurism" into the learning spaces and processes taking place in 
the village.
Figure 2. Learning Community Diagram. 
       
The process used in the Space Workshop illustrated that in a relatively short time 
frame, it was possible to have a small group of people, who basically did not know one 
another, but all of whom had knowledge and experience in education and/or architecture, 
to do the following three things: (a) produce insightful designs, (b) identify the features of the design, and (c) provide insight into the thinking behind the selection of the features 
into the design process itself. Another learning experience from the Space Workshop that 
I applied to Phase III of the study was the participant group might want to change the 
assignment to what is most pertinent for them at the time. The importance of the lesson 
was as a facilitator of a learning project, it is crucial to recognize when to deviate from 
the planned process and agenda and let the group's work flow.

Findings of Phase II 
       Five new features emerged in Phase II that were not identified in Phase I: (a) 
access to food and beverage; (b) lighting such as task lighting and light tables; (c) high-
bay, shop space (d) technology laboratories; and (e) slump spaces or places to generate 
synergy, create new ideas, think, and relax. Features recommended in Phase I that were 
not mentioned in Phase II were: (a) public display space, (b) lockable personal storage, 
(c) personal display space, and (d) durability. 
       The analysis of Phase I included clustering the design features into four 
preliminary categories of group size, learning activities, adjacencies, and furnishings. The 
five new features from Phase II fit into the categories as next described. Features building 
as a learning tool, high-bay, shop space, and technology laboratories were added to the 
learning activities category. An additional feature identified was the infrastructure of the 
building being used as a learning tool to teach concepts such as sociology, psychology, 
mathematics, scientific and environmental principles. Specialized infrastructure and 
equipment needed to support specific learning activities were identified. Lighting (e.g., 
general purpose and task based) was added to the furnishings category as an element to 
support learning processes. Further analysis of Phase II identified a new category of 
design features, which I labeled as psychological and physiological support referring to 
the human functions that need to be taken care of during the learning process. 

Psychological and Physiological Support
       The design features put into that category were access to food and beverages and 
"slump" spaces. One could argue that all learners need access to food and beverage; 
however, the participants stated that with collaborative, project-based learning, the 
activity takes place in longer blocks of time and it could be disruptive to break from the 
learning at appointed times rather than at natural breaking points. The participant who 
described "slump spaces" gave them a dual purpose. One was to offer a space similar to a 
"think tank" that is an energizing space to create ideas. The second purpose was a place 
for a small group of individuals to get away from formal activities to relax and reflect. 
In the analysis of Phase I, the feature, sense of pride and ownership, did not fit 
into any of the categories that emerged in Phase I; however, from further descriptions and 
purposes being described in Phase II, I placed it into the psychological and physiological 
support category. This decision was based on the psychological aspects of belonging and 
not feeling anonymous, and needing a space to "own," by personalizing and caring for the 
area. 

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