By. Barbara C. Worth, Director of Strategic and Private Development for the Association for Learning Environments


Can students lead us into a better future?  As the final 2016 Association for Learning Environments SchoolsNEXT competition concluded, the jury answered with a resounding YES!  By changing the face of education…indeed, their passion and desire to make a difference can change our world.


Displaying remarkable enthusiasm, empathy, rigorous research, and exceptional teamwork, their eco-friendly solutions not only meet the needs of students, but address the economy and society of the future, enabling them to master the skills they need to take on the challenges of a world defined by change.


In the words of Cole Webber who participated on the 2013 winning team, “SchoolsNEXT was the thing that started it all for me.  It lit a spark in me.  It challenged me to uncover my passion and unlock my potential.  I can say first-hand the value of this program.  It is not just a fun project to do in school.  This program changes lives.”  Suffice to say that Cole has founded a nonprofit association – Sparked – that offers mentors to students around the world.  Additionally, he served as an advisor to the Minister of Education in Ontario, Canada and has spoken at numerous international school planning events.


So what did the 2016 seven finalist teams of middle school students from across the globe accomplish?  With the intent to bring student voice into the planning and design of exceptional learning environments, the students demonstrated their passion in rethinking the requisites of tomorrow’s 21st century learning environments, developing solutions to global design challenges that inspire transformation in education.


As the face of education around the world continues to evolve to better prepare students to succeed, educators strive to enhance learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom, providing real-world learning experiences and opportunities for students to ask questions and problem solve, think critically and creatively, and collaborate and gain experience in tactile, hands-on work while developing an eye for beauty and design. Who knows better than students who spend most of their waking hours in schools as to what their learning environments should offer and how they should look?


Challenged to plan and design sustainable and resilient learning spaces that encourage innovation, critical thinking, and collaborative teamwork, these young designers have broadened the potential of a school by connecting excellence in design with excellence in education.  Guided by a STEAM curriculum, the “planning” teams learn the importance of collaboration and compromise as they finalize their project ideas.  They connect with their school and local communities, use CAD programs such as Revit or Google Sketchup to build models, and are required to present three to five minute videos and narratives documenting their planning process and project rationale.


Lake Oswego Junior High

Donning their Philadelphia Freedom scarves and exhibiting great presentation skills as they walked away with top honors, the Sailors of Lake Oswego Junior High, Lake Oswego, Oregon welcomed us to the future. Demonstrating great purpose and passion, the Team Sailors did not settle for anything less in the collaborative project based-spaces and maker spaces that comprise the Best of the Best school.  With their articulate division of labor and well-defined planning process, the students described their “needs” and “wants” and chose an innovative educational and green solutions program, including a Holodeck for virtual field trips and extended learning, vertical green walls for safety and security, CO2 sequestering concrete, a Tree of Knowledge observation deck, and flexible classroom spaces.  New technologies were applied to ensure safety and better traffic flow.   Tours with community members and the facilities bond committee, extensive Google surveys for students and staff, and meticulous research informed the learning areas and generated a school that utilizes green energy resources and technologies, inspires learning, fully supports the educational program, and forms a strong connection with the community.  Facilities are open to the community after school hours and energy collected from the solar panels in the summer is donated to the community.


Sutter Middle School

The Sutter Middle School team had an exciting journey as they led us into the future and its endless possibilities with Crecerus. A play on the Latin word “to grow,” the Crecerus Institute’s watchword became “with wisdom we grow.” No idea is a bad idea at Creserus; rather, learning from mistakes sows the seeds for curiosity and living an intelligent and useful life.  Gathering ideas from all stakeholders and applying their mantra of “rigor, relevance, and relationships,” their team’s design goal addressed the problems they found in their current learning environment.  With an eye to the connection between learning and the global community, Creserus challenges the traditional grade structure, offering an environment for self-paced learning, grouped by passion and interest in four dormitory houses:  Strexora for aspiring artists; Aulara for technology and science; Cessna for future leaders who strive to make this world a better place; and Razelle for those who push themselves to their physical limits.  While core academies cover the basics during the day, the four houses offer opportunities to study in their areas of interest, strengthening a student’s career path. Each house manages an urban farming pod that produces energy as its contents are cultivated and nurtured.  Those who do not work in the field are responsible for cooking and cleaning and all are encouraged to provide community service.  Points are earned and may be used for the snack bar and to ride the Maglev train, a magnetic levitation train providing frictionless propulsion that enables a train to “float” above the track, capable of reaching speeds in excess of 350 mph.


Neal Middle School

Neal Middle School’s Durham International Innovation Academy is for dreamers, believers, planners, and creators.  It is the place to pursue bold ideas.  Demonstrating a very comprehensive planning process, the team hailing from Durham, North Carolina utilized the DEAL engineering design procedure:  Define the problem; Explore ideas;  Apply a solution; and Look back and learn. They learned the importance of planning and redesign, noting how their initial ideas evolved and were realized in the Innovation Academy.   Demonstrating their passion for encouraging optimal student learning and conducting exceptional research into their community’s needs, the students focused on designing solutions to rebuild their buy ambien from uk East Durham community.  After several exploratory field trips, the team discovered that Research Triangle Park (RTP) offered the greatest opportunity.  Incorporating a STEM curriculum through a partnership with RTP, the students were introduced to groundbreaking research and future career paths. Replete with flexible and eco-friendly learning environments, opportunities for internships, and engaging outdoor learning spaces, the Innovation Academy inspired change in the future of education for the entire community.  Turning dreams into reality, the Innovation Academy provided healthy organic food, unique educational resources (including a dual language emergent program), and affordable electricity produced at their solar farm – indeed these students will make a difference!


Brecksville-Broadview Heights Middle School

Brain scanner headsets that determine what a student actually knows.  Three self-paced learning levels that match the values and learning styles of the student.  Minds that do not wake up until 9:00am.  Intent on creating a better learning experience for all students, the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Ohio team incorporated these exceptional features to create the Huron School of Innovation.  Beginning the school day at 9:00am, students are placed in one of three learning levels that allow students to progress at their own pace. Fingerprint IDs allow entry to the school as well as access to their account on any computer in the building.  A multi-use stadium accommodating all sports and events provides additional space for the Huron Farm and eco-friendly greenhouse.  Using aeroponics technologies similar to those used at NASA, they point with pride to their Tower Gardens, large pillars with plants grown with only water and nutrients.  While the plants and produce are used in school meals, extra produce is sold at a monthly farmers’ market to provide funds for school programs.  Solar panels and wind turbines funnel energy into a school generator and the small lake on their site provides hydropower.


Isle of Portland Aldridge Academy (IPACA)

“We’ve inherited our past…we are going to change our future,” remarked the team from the Isle of Portland Aldridge Academy (IPACA), Dorset, United Kingdom (UK).  Designing a STEM Center that reflected local needs with key design elements that incorporate the unique features of their island in Portland, UK, the student team blended land and sea through architecture.  Integrating biophilia, the sustainable domed science center (inspired by a water droplet) is constructed of algae powered glass sitting on the surface of the sea, half of the droplet underwater.  Small “barnacle” working pods surround the droplet, adding an element of fun to marine biology studies.  Maker spaces provide the perfect environment for problem solving and a new way of learning.


Null Middle School

Focusing on a healthy lifestyle, Kinected Academy harvests student energy to power the school, converting the kinetic energy of footsteps into renewable energy.  Utilizing survey results to inform their design, the team from Null Middle School in Houston, Texas considered the impact of the education process, the role of the learning environment, and the different ways that students learn to design collaborative and innovative spaces for personalized, project-based learning.  Sharing resources with the community, such as energy-producing biking and hiking trails, gardens, and a greenhouse, was at the top of their list to encourage healthy regimes.


St. Michael’s Academy

Opting to design a 21st century literature classroom with a detailed budget of almost $2 million, the St. Michael’s Academy, Springfield, Massachusetts prototype included a Narnia-themed library and a wheelchair-accessible stage for performances.  Completing the project on time and under cost, the students donated funds back to the school for green projects.  Careful attention was given to ensure good indoor air quality and the use of “Big Ass” fans, high efficiency windows, and repurposed materials. Moveable, stackable desks accommodate virtual writing.  An engaging color palette welcomes all—who would not want to take the opportunity to become a 21st century Shakespeare in this inspiring setting?


(source: Association for Learning Environments)

Frederick County Career & Technology Center

What’s next for SchoolsNEXT?  Just when we thought it could not get any better, we were fortunate to have  Frederick County Career & Technology Center, from Frederick, Maryland, design a pilot project for the impending high school component of SchoolsNEXT.  Their 21st Century educational redesign addressed current overcrowding in magnet and special high schools, which excludes many students from participating in these programs.  Concerns over how renovations would affect the environment led to the inclusion of renewable technologies and a variety of sustainable design elements, such as semi-permeable pavement solar panels, green roofing, and double glass layer walls.  The focus of the design was to maximize the site’s space and make learning for students more inclusive and positive. During an extensive planning process, the team decided to have three separate structures on the remodeled campus – the School of Design, the School of Service, and the School of Fabrication.  In addition to a large outdoor gathering space for group work and social activities, two outdoor classrooms lend a breath of fresh air to the campus.  A system of Learning Stairs in the School of Design offers additional space for group projects, strengthening the bond of students at the school.


We like to think the SchoolsNEXT teams represent the best and the brightest, but they are simply a microcosm of all students in communities across the globe. The students continue to raise the bar each year in the rigorous competition. Their desire to transform education, empower students, and create true community is remarkable.  Give these kids a chance and our future is in good hands.


About the Author

Barbara Worth is the director of strategic and private development for the Association for Learning Environments. She maintains key contacts with organizations, federal agencies, NGOs, and private sector entities that may further the mission of the Association, and develops partnership opportunities, funding initiatives, and grant sources that may be applied to the Association’s objectives.  In addition, Ms. Worth serves as the project manager for grants and cooperative agreements and as the Association’s spokesperson, providing support on policy issues, objectives, projects, and services.


Ms. Worth has overseen the SchoolsNEXT Competition since its inception.  A signature event for the Association for Learning Environments, this robust program has become a global event.


A graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, Ms. Worth serves on several editorial and NGO advisory boards.