By. Peter King and Jason Benedict, King + King Architects


Walk into any elementary or middle school in 2016 and it is likely to look much the same as it did decades ago -­‐ single grade classrooms with desks in rows and the teacher at the front of the room teaching as a “sage on the stage.” Almost half of all public schools in the United States were built between 1950 and 1969 – and only 10% after 1985. As a result, school buildings across the country are aging and will be in need of major renovations or replacement in the coming years. Given the current climate of high-stakes testing and an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and 21st century learning skills, these impending renovations are a critical moment in the history of our education system and an opportunity to rethink what school buildings should look like and how they will function.


While many designs will be newer versions of the status quo, King + King Architects aims to study whether there are changes that can be made to significantly improve student learning outcomes. For example, does the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of school buildings impact learning and teaching performance?  Will a change in the spatial design of a school interior encourage interdisciplinary project-based teaching and learning?  In other words, how will shifting the current 20th century “industrial-­age, assembly-­line, factory-­type” model to a 21st century design impact learning and human performance? These are powerful questions, the answers to which will accelerate change in the way we design facilities and curriculum for our children. Common sense compels us to think that cleaner air, natural lighting, and thoughtful spatial design delivered with innovations in teaching and learning designs will improve student success. However, scientific evidence is lacking.


The renovation of Pine Grove Middle School in the East Syracuse–Minoa (ESM) School District provides a unique opportunity to collect data on environmental conditions in the building, and teaching techniques, as related to student performance, prior to and after the renovation in an attempt to begin to answer these and other related questions in a meaningful way.



In 2010, ESM secondary staff and administrators visited exemplary STEM school districts in Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas in connection with the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a nationally recognized professional learning organization. The learning tour provided a catalyst for synergistic thinking about learning designs that align with the ESM Strategic Plan and integrate 21st century learning. Additionally, the team recognized the significance of the arts in STEM learning and an innovative “STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Team” collaborative learning model was conceived.


In 2011, with the support of Superintendent Donna DeSiato, then Principal Kelly Sajnog and the STEAM Team at Pine Grove began the process of redesigning their teaching methods to infuse STEAM learning in a transdisciplinary, problem-based learning model.   


The STEAM Team teachers plan units collaboratively and set class schedules for students based on the selected project/problem they are working on, rather than teach subjects in isolation. Groups of students are taught by combinations of teachers at different times of the day. Learning is the constant and time becomes the variable with a high degree of flexibility to support learning. This type of learning intentionally connects in-school learning to real-world application to better prepare students for college and careers.


Pine Grove Middle School Renovation

Like many of the 132,000 public schools in our country, Pine Grove Middle School, which houses approximately 770 middle school students and 100 teachers and staff, is over forty years old and in need of major renovations. Fortunately, the district’s taxpayers passed a referendum in December 2012 for a full school renovation and expansion, which began after the 2013‐2014 school year.


The Pine Grove renovation is being designed by King+King Architects, a Syracuse-based firm with 148 years of experience and a focus on sustainable and environmentally-friendly design. The new middle school building will support 21st century learning and its principle concepts of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, community, environment, and problem solving.


A Unique Opportunity for Research

To date, school facility conditions have not been widely perceived as playing a critical role in the educational process, largely due to the fact that research into the complex relationship between aspects of the physical environment and the well-being, health, productivity, and academic performance of students is only now emerging. However, recent research suggests that students attending schools in poor condition score lower on standardized tests than students who attend schools in good condition.


Indoor environments in schools are of particular public concern, for 4 major reasons1:

  1. Schools are likely to have environmental deficiencies because chronic shortages of funding may contribute to inadequate operation and maintenance.
  2. Children breathe higher volumes of air relative to their body weight and are actively growing. As a result, they are more susceptible to some environmental pollutants than adults.
  3. Children spend more time in school than in any other indoor environment outside the home.
  4. Positive and negative environmental effects on student achievement and teacher and staff effectiveness in schools could have important short- and long-term consequences, for students, teachers, and society.


The Pine Grove renovation provides a unique and time-sensitive opportunity to study the effects of changes in the students’ physical environment on their learning and problem solving skills. Factors such as IEQ (i.e. natural light levels, CO2 concentrations, background noise) and the built environment (i.e. flexible classroom configurations, adjacencies, state-of-the art technology, and building systems) are all believed to affect cognitive function.  This project will provide the opportunity to test this in a middle school setting in a very focused and intentional way. As demolition of the existing facility began in the summer of 2014, we collected the necessary background environmental and student data for comparison to future conditions after renovation.


King + King Architects and the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems (SyracuseCoE) have assembled a team of world-class experts led by Professors Usha Satish (SUNY Upstate Medical University – human performance and decision making)2 and Jensen Zhang (Syracuse University – indoor environmental quality). Together they have developed a plan for collaborative research that brings scientific methodology to the assessment of Pine Grove’s IEQ and connects it with teaching design and student performance, pre- and post-renovation.


Among the research questions we will address are:

  • How is project-based learning different from traditional teaching methods in terms of improving student learning performance? (comparing traditional classes with those in the STEAM Team)
  • How does the renovation impact IEQ, including lighting, acoustics, air quality, thermal comfort, and visual quality? (comparing pre- and post-renovation IEQ)
  • How do the (assumed) IEQ improvements affect the overall productivity of the students in terms of critical thinking? (comparing pre- and post-renovation performance using a Strategic Management Simulation Tool and Creativity Task)
  • How well does the new classroom setting facilitate project-based learning compared to the pre-existing classroom setting? (comparing pre- and post-teaching methods and outcomes)


A rigorous study of the changes in the qualities of the physical space as a result of this major renovation combined with a scientifically‐based assessment of teaching methods and student performance will greatly contribute to the knowledge base on how different factors in learning environments affect teachers’ ability to implement problem-based learning and the learning outcomes associated with such changes.


Project Outcomes

The outcome of this project will include baseline data on environmental conditions, teaching strategies, and student learning outcomes from the original building.  We will compare this data to the data collected post-renovation, and draw conclusions regarding the effects of the changes on student learning. Our ultimate goal is to develop a manual of best practices for school boards and administrators facing similar renovation projects. We intend for our research to inform their choices about school design and its impact on 21st century teaching and learning.


In addition, this project will include a community engaged research component where we will establish a guiding group of stakeholders, including teachers, superintendents, principals, and health professionals to help guide the study. This will bring different perspectives and needs to the table to ensure that the outcomes are relevant and useful to the intended end users.



Baseline data was collected at Pine Grove Middle School before the renovation with the support of a group of funders deeply committed to improvements in student learning based on improvements to design and IEQ in schools. We welcome additional partners in this pioneering effort. For more information on this project and to discuss opportunities to become engaged, please contact Tammy Rosanio, at SyracuseCoE, or Jason Benedict, King + King Architects,


1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Healthy Schools: Environmental Factors, Children’s Health and Performance, and Sustainable Building Practices.

  1. See Harvard / CoE Cognitive Function similar research for office buildings.


About Peter King and Jason Benedict


Jason Benedict, AIA, LEED AP
Education Studio

“What makes me happy to come to work every day is the notion of fostering new relationships and growing old ones. It is a great feeling to be part of a team that not only shares this same notion but builds a firm around it.”


Jason has been part of King + King for more than 10 years. He manages and administers all project phases from inception through construction. His passion is seeing a design go from concept to actual bricks and mortar.  Jason holds an Associate’s Degree in Drafting from Mohawk Valley Community College; his Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture from SUNY-Buffalo; and his Master’s Degree in Architecture from Syracuse University. He volunteers with Syracuse Habitat for Humanity, is a member of the “School to College and Career Advisory Board” at East Syracuse Minoa CSD, and is a member of the Salute Military Golf Association, of which he is co-chair. Jason lives in Chittenango with his wife, Ann Marie, and son, Zachary.


Pete King, AIA, LEED BD & C
Partner-in-Charge, Health Care/Community Studio

“It’s not by chance, it’s by design.”


With more than 30 years of professional experience, Pete is a fifth generation leader at King + King. His personal commitment to improving the quality of life in Central New York and his passion for environmental responsibility has led to the firm’s leadership in sustainable design.  Pete is chair of the Syracuse Center of Excellence Board of Directors, board member and past chairman of the Onondaga Community College Foundation, past Chair of NYIEQ Center, Inc., past board chairman for the Golisano Children’s Hospital Advisory Council, and was a member of the Community General Foundation board.  He graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Architecture and is a licensed architect in New York State, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Pete is also a LEED Accredited Professional. He enjoys skiing in Vermont with his wife and children, Susie and Alex. Pete resides in Manlius with wife Kathe.