Posted 9/17/2012

By Raini W. Brunson

For years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has collaborated with the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) on the designs of education facilities. As studies emerged showing that evidence-based design measurably improves students’ academic performance, DoDEA approached USACE to help them develop new schools – 21st century schools - that would foster more productive learning environments.

The 21st Century Education Initiative is rooted in the philosophy that a child learns best at his or her own pace.  Evidence-based design fosters the 21st century concept as desired behaviors in students, educators, and supporting personnel are more easily achieved if their environment reinforces and facilitates those behaviors. 

“The 21st century school really is the framework for the type of environment that we want children to be able to learn in, this 21st century,” said Robert Slockbower, former director of Military Programs at USACE Headquarters. “When you develop a 21st century school you don’t start the process with the question, ‘How do I build the school?’ You start the process with the question, ‘How do I teach in the 21st century?’ ”

Although the 21st century education concept had been around for some time, in 2011, the concept received momentum with the release of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). 

The NDAA stated that best practices and design innovations in public and private schools are to be incorporated into the design of DoDEA schools, and that processes should ensure that facility design can adopt and respond to emerging requirements related to dynamic curricula through teaching techniques and should also incorporate feedback from teachers, parents, military community representatives and local school administrators. The NDAA established the criteria that schools should be constructed with flexible capabilities so that the learning environment meets the needs of every student. Technology is one way to introduce flexibility. 

Other examples of evidence-based design are: increasing the use of natural lighting through windows and skylights, designing the acoustics of a room so that the external noise is reduced, and utilizing adjustable furniture. Studies have connected natural lighting to improvements in learning reading and math, reduction in external noise to improvement in concentration, and adjustable furniture to good physical posture, all of which improve academic performance.

“We need to build for the future, build an infrastructure into facilities so that there is flexibility.  We need to look ahead at the available tools,” said Russell Roberts, chief of the Logistics Division at DoDEA Headquarters. “The infrastructure needs to be put into the facility to where the capacity and the bandwidth are in place so that any type of a tool that a school district, teacher or DoDEA feels will benefit the students, our facility is able to handle that tool.”

In April 2011, USACE worked with DoDEA to develop three symposiums to establish the framework supporting the 21st century education concept. The first symposium solicited external feedback from leaders in the nation’s education, information technology, architectural and engineering arenas. The second symposium solicited internal feedback from DoDEA’s students, teachers and other personnel at the division and district levels.

“What I have seen with the Corps for twenty-something years is that they really are customer-oriented,” Roberts said. “[The 21st century concept] is education driven not facility driven. The Corps of Engineers was absolutely open about trying to find a solution for us.”

The solution came during the third symposium which brought together the external and internal feedback from the previous symposiums.  This collective feedback was used to establish the education specifications that would later become the basis for the designs of the 21st century schools.

In December 2008, USACE established a DoDEA Design Center at its Norfolk District. The center’s primary mission was to guide the designs of the DoDEA military construction projects. With the emergence of the 21st Century Education Initiative, project engineers at the center took on the mission of developing new facility education specifications for the 21st century schools.

 DoDEA construction projects are “primarily new construction with some additions and renovations,” said Gerry Boyle, DoDEA national program manager for USACE. 

All of the construction focuses on elementary, middle and high schools with locations in the Pacific, Europe and several U.S. installations.

Some of the major, multi-million dollar projects are: the construction of the Antilles Elementary School at Fort Buchannan in Puerto Rico; the renovation of West Point Middle School at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point New York; and the construction of elementary, middle and high schools at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium.

Evidence of the 21st century education concept can be found throughout the designs of these schools. The designs have been patterned off of some of the most successful schools in the United States. An abundance of windows and multiple skylights let in large amounts of natural light. Wireless capabilities and other technologies make the infrastructure flexible to meet current and future needs. Even what may seem like the most trivial of details, the size of a janitor’s closet, has been incorporated into the overall school designs.

USACE’s design specifications have helped standardize square footage and functional configurations, and are used to communicate with educators. Design improvements based on lessons learned have also been captured. In providing its 21st century solution for DoDEA schools, USACE’s designs will serve as a model for public and private school systems nationwide.