Redesigning Learning Spaces: Hampton School District
Each spring Remake Learning sponsors a series of activities around the Pittsburgh region that showcases kids at play and learning. This year Remake Learning sponsored 175 in-person and virtual events in the Pittsburgh region between May 12-23. I had a chance to visit the Hampton School District in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh to see STEAM in action. I’ve been fortunate to become not just a colleague, but a friend with several of the administrative team members. Before COVID hit I had intended to visit the Hampton campus, but like so many people, I was forced to wait until this spring.
I wanted to use the day as a chance to practice my documentary skills, renew friendships, and learn what was going on in a school district in the region. As soon as I entered Central Elementary School I felt like I was back in a land where I belonged. Elementary schools are always filled with bright colors, student work, and welcoming people. The first Hampton person I saw was Rebecca Cunningham. She started her administrative career as an assistant principal in the Fox Chapel Area School District and worked with me for five years when I was the Coordinator of Educational Technology. She’s now the assistant superintendent for Hampton. She gave me a huge hug. After a few minutes my friend and colleague, Ed McKaveney, the Director of Technology at Hampton, appeared with his film camera and tripod. Ed and I have worked on joint projects, presentations, and even traveled together with CoSN. It was just good to see him in person.
The tour group waited in what the school calls the living room. It’s wonderful to see how schools have placed comfortable furniture in the lobby of buildings to reduce any tension for parents or visitors. Once the group was in place, the building principal, Amy Kern, shared the agenda for our visit.
The artwork behind Amy came from a project with the schools’ first artist in residence. The artist-in-residence worked with teachers and kids on the project. It’s a great example of infusing the arts into the curriculum. The art piece really is the welcoming showcase for the building.
Central Elementary transformed two courtyard areas into incredible learning spaces. Amy Kern and one of her staff members gave a short slide presentation to show how the space became transformed and who were the key players. Hampton has a very strong educational organization that works with local businesses and corporations to raise money. The school also found funding from local foundations and businesses. Today the result is a Nature and Sensory Garden and an Outdoor Learning Lab where just an outdoor garden had been until last year. Hampton tapped into its students, faculty and staff to design the spaces. They also enlisted the assistance of two local businesses who provided the technical support for the construction – Blue Fox Landscape and Lady Fox. The spaces were designed to provide hands-on, project-based, outdoor learning spaces aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.
It was wonderful to see the kids engaged in a variety of hands-on activities. The young lady on the left is an “Ambassador.” She not only takes people on tours of the garden, but she has been part of the outreach to younger students. The kids on the right are working on a series of engineering challenges. They have to assemble these large building blocks working with a team of fellow students.
From Central we jumped back into our vehicles and drove down the road to the Middle School. (I’ll have to return in the fall to see the high school. The building is going through a major renovation and wasn’t available for us to visit on this round.) The Middle School principal, a former math teacher, was challenged by the superintendent to rethink a courtyard area that housed a collection of stuffed animals. The space had no real learning purpose. She reached out to her staff and students and they came up with a design for a Learning Pavillion. She enlisted the help of the Children’s Museum and Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. The Learning Pavilion serves the needs of all teachers and students. It’s a modular construction that provides for a variety of group activities. Teachers bring their own manipulatives to the pavilion and then divide their class into working teams. In the next phase a student team will build a hydroponics station where they’ll grow basil that they’ll give to the Pittsburgh Food Bank. The space also incorporates an interactive, augmented reality environment using CMU’s ARCADE system to position the animations, build interactive narratives, or layer content to the real-world environment.
I actually forgot to share our first stop at the middle school. We went into the library where high school students from the AP Research class were available to share their work along with a team of AP Computer Science students who had created Edtech solutions. I had several wonderful conversations with students who did research on topics like Critical Race Theory in Schools and physical training ways to improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s. Each student was incredibly articulate and were well prepared. The Computer Science guys (yes there were no girls) tackled software issues, like the tutoring program at the high school, and a virtual reality setup for weight lifting without the weights.
After lunch we had a chance to visit a variety of classrooms that included a Robotics Studio, Innovation Studio, Print Studio, TV Studio, and the Learning Pavillion. Each space showcased Hampton’s desire for collaborative, interactive, project-based learning. Teachers deploy Human-Centered Design activities to engage students in brainstorming ideation as well concept building. The furniture allows students to write on the table surfaces so they can creatively share their ideas. Students tap into traditional arts, such as printing, as well as technological tools such as 3-D printers, Hummingbirds, Finch, Spero, Cosmos and other robotic tools.
By the end of the day I was exhausted. It had been over two years since I had a full day interacting with kids, educators, and community members. I had learned a great deal and more importantly, felt inspired to share my findings.