Redesigning NYC Public Schools for Project-Based Learning

When design firm Kurani was tasked with creating a replicable campus design for New York City’s new EPIC Schools, they were faced with the usual challenges: lack of funding funding, lack of space, and outdated buildings.

The site they were given to work with was what you might expect of a city school: double-loaded hallways, small communal spaces, and rows of identical 28’ x 28’ classrooms.

While the concept of ‘form follows function’ is not new to architecture, it is relatively new to school architecture, which, despite huge shifts in educational philosophy, has not changed much in the last 100 years. Taking the maxim to heart, Danish Kurani decided to collaborate with EPIC so that their design would reflect the school’s curriculum model rather than the commonly-held idea of what a school should look like.

EPIC Schools are New York City’s answer to low college and career readiness among their graduating classes. The Department of Education sought to try something new, and consequently envisioned an experience unlike the standardized and test-based curriculum of so many other public schools. EPIC focuses instead on early college exposure, social responsibility, critical thinking, connecting students to industry, and one-on-one mentoring. EPIC aimed to have a more project-based curriculum, rather than siloing by subject, so that students would leave with an interdisciplinary and open-minded approach to problem solving. The campus design became based on the logic that if lines between subjects are no longer clear, then the lines between classrooms should not be either.

After an intensive participatory design process that involved exercises with teachers, students, and parents, the firm developed a campus plan to reflect EPIC’s goals. Much of the feedback received from teachers touched on the difficulty of carrying out project-based lessons without the necessary spaces to support them. Their classrooms were still desks facing a front board while their curriculum had moved beyond that lecture method. Kurani had to keep the 28’ x 28’ classroom grid, but their solution was to make each of those spaces a unique learning microenvironment. In this new campus design the role of teacher would change. Instead of being locked to one classroom, teachers would instead guide their students to a specifically-equipped environment that would best suit their needs for that day.

Kurani proposed a variety of microenvironments to support EPIC’s model. For example, the Pit is a room designed for debates and discussions that build social awareness, critical thinking, and aim to prepare students for higher education. At the center of this simple room is a sunken “pit” filled with foam cubes that can be arranged into various seating options, from a roundtable to an amphitheater. Other than dry erase walls, the room has been stripped down to minimize distractions and emphasize conversation.

The Living Room, Coworking Dens, and Rolling Pods are all ‘breakout spaces’ designed for group work and one-on-one coaching. The Living Room is a comfortable lounge complete with couches, games, and reference materials to make students feel at ease meeting and collaborating.

The Learning Partner Incubator is a dedicated space where students can connect with industry experts on a daily basis in order to expose them to different career paths and industries. Learning Partners are chosen by the staff and can be an individual or an organization. They are given a workspace and invited to serve a term as a kind of “artist-in-residence” on campus that engages students in real-world projects.

The Build Barn is the space for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. The room is designed for planning, coworking, and prototyping solutions. It has a basic machine-shop setup, as well as paneled walls that can be easily and cheaply replaced once beat up. It is made to get messy.

While there are still issues to be worked out with this school design in terms of logistics, as well as teachers having to transition from being specialists to specialized generalists, the direction is clear. More and more research is supporting project-based learning to ready students for life post-school. EPIC Schools are an experiment themselves, yet this campus design, while supported by the staff and students, has yet to be implemented. EPIC is actively fundraising in order to put this plan in action, because without pivots in public education, stagnancy reigns. Tabari Bomani, principal at EPIC Bedstuy (now The Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice) said that the design process “has given us hope that our instructional and learning model can be and will be supported within a new physical reality.” The real importance of this redesign, despite its nascency, is in the city’s acknowledgement of a need for change.


Originally published on EdTechReview