How building a new school became one big STEM lesson

building demolition

Engineers, architects, plumbers, electricians, surveyors, and landscape architects all are helping make math “real” for local K-12 students as work goes on to build a new high school on Vashon Island in Washington State.

building demolition

Educators have brilliantly leveraged the swarm of nearby technical professionals to engage students in real-life math challenges. Read more from Washington STEM, which provided a grant for the project.

This project focuses on math connected to the new building, although it has spilled over into other subjects. In English, students strengthen their powers of observation and non-fiction writing skills by reporting on the building’s progress.

From a sustainability perspective,  it would also be a great opportunity to engage students with the art and science of green building and landscape ecology. For example, imagine students also working on questions like:

  • Can the debris from demolition of the old school be used for anything else?
  • How do you make a habitat?
  • Does the position of the building on the land make a difference in how much energy is used?

The project has generated so much enthusiasm that participants are looking for ways to scale the approach for wider use. Washington STEM argues, “Schools build new buildings and renovate old buildings every year, and students across our state are struggling in math and science.”

I’d argue that schools aren’t the only organizations constructing buildings, and educators should look more widely in the community for opportunities like these.

Learning Playgrounds

knitted playground

Unusual playgrounds, or playscapes, show how design can help us create unexpected learning environments in playgrounds. You can’t look at these two places without thinking of the issues that Hanna Rosin brings up in her Atlantic article, “The Overprotected Kid.

Rosin chronicles how in the 1970s, a few accidents and other media-hyped incidents led to a gradual homogenization of playground and even, to a degree, supervised childhood.

Let’s hope playgrounds like these that emphasize experimentation and alternative thinking will support an arts-influenced experience that draws out elements of  science, technology, engineering, and math.

Wikado Foundation playground, the Netherlands
A playground made of recycled wind turbines by Superuse Studios.
kids gain a sense of scale and experience the aerodynamic shape of the blades (both inside and out).

Rain­bow Net play­ground, Hakone Sculp­ture Park, Japan

This crocheted playground by Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam helps kids see tensile (stetchy) material as structural and illustrates geometry (not to mention color!). Turns out crochet is one of the best ways to model a hyperbolic shape (according to the Girls Collaborative Project, who crochet coral reef models, and Sara Kuhn who crochets amazing hyberbolic planes).



We should also leave so room for the not overprotected kid, as shown in Rosin’s pictures from “The Land” were kids play happily unsupervised in an area containing a wealth of “source material” that kids engineer into play structures and spaces of their own.

Rosin-theland playground

For more inspiring playgrounds have a look over on Playscapes blog by Paige Johnson and check out this Arch Daily article on “Forming Playscapes: What Schools Can Learn from Playgrounds.”

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National plan to educate for sustainability

Two great groups have just launched the National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability.


The Center for Green Schools and the US Green Building Council make recommendations for formally including sustainability in all US education so that “by 2040, every student graduating from a U.S. K-12 school will be equipped to shape a more sustainable future.”

We haven’t had time to read the plan but the exec summary shows there are a lot of steps in it. Many involve training teachers. An early goal (June 2014) is to establish the United States Teacher Education for Sustainable Development Network.

Also Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt (a mega publishing company) is a partner, so it’s good to see books and other educational materials are in play.

Applause all around, and we’ll keep an eye on it with you.