September 2, 2020

American Alliance of Museums: What PK-12 Schools Can Learn from Museum Design

Our Mike Corb and Troy Hoggard have authored a new piece for the American Alliance of Museums titled: Never Waste the Walls – What PK-12 Schools Can Learn from Museum Design.

In the piece they highlight how generally speaking, children are much more enthusiastic about heading to a children’s museum than school, even though learning occurs in both places. They then highlight how Seneca Valley School District is exploring the physical and experiential differences for this with their dynamic new K-6 school. The project unites our team with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to advance bold new opportunities for school design.

Specifically, Seneca Valley’s new school looks at how learning spaces can be more compelling, relevant, engaging, and successful for students? And, do enriched learning opportunities emerge when teachers and students are empowered to curate their school spaces and experiences?

The full piece is published online and identifies five key takeaways that can inspire other similar collaboration and guide how K-6 schools infuse museum design concepts in their future projects. Here is an excerpt:

Never Waste The Walls
One striking difference between PK-12 schools and children’s museums is how they treat wall space. In school environments, corridors are almost always static, left blank, or used solely to display student work. In museums, however, wall spaces are leveraged as teaching tools, where children can engage, experience, curate, and more for dynamic learning opportunities.

The Seneca Valley PK-12 project embraces museums’ approach to wall space, featuring:

  • Graphic walls that teach children about animals, plants, counting, earth sciences, ecosystems, language, and more based on their location relative to grade level
  • Peg boards where students can cognitively and physically engage in analog and/or tactile learning activities like scatter plotting, pattern forming, recognition, and deductive reasoning
  • Large-scale magnetic wall maps documenting data like ecological surveys of the surrounding site
  • Harmonics walls which create learning opportunities related to sound, distance, fractions, energy, and more

“Recognizing that walls, both inside and outside of the classroom, are learning tools proved to be one of the first and most important opportunities we discovered as a team,” said Anne Fullenkamp, Senior Director of Design at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. “Considering empty walls as important spaces gave us more opportunities to develop another layer of tools that gives agency to students and teachers to be curators of their environment: it’s an idea every school district should embrace.”

Encourage Students to take Physical Journeys
Compared to schools, children’s museums are much more intentional about designing the whole environment to encourage physical movement, social interaction, and connecting with the mind and body.

There are numerous ways PK-12 schools can emulate such movement-fueling design strategies. For example, rather than a standard staircase between floors, consider a spiraling or parabolic ramp that allows for different routes, views, and perspectives of the schools (not to mention more fun!). Or decorate the floors with graphics that are both educational and narrative, compelling students to joyfully move forward to new classrooms, spaces, experiences, and opportunities.

“I think the fundamental difference is traditional school design assumes students start learning when they get inside a classroom, where museum design sees the entire building as part of the experience with learning happening as a journey,” added Fullenkamp. “There are a lot of positives that come from this journey approach and it’s exciting to see this school adopting it.”

Learn more about the Seneca Valley project >