How major trends from the past are informing future learning environments

June 29, 2018 Erin Machac

What will safety and security, sustainability, and technical education look like in learning environments 20 years from now?


When I started college in the early ’90s to become an architect, the message was clear: why? Everyone wondered why a person would enter a profession that had very little current need and a long timeframe to reach the ultimate goal. At the time, with a four-year degree, it would take an additional four to five years, plus passing nine exams to call yourself a real architect.

Whether inherited in my DNA, or by example from family members (especially my grandmother), my desire was to push through, completing an environmental design degree in five years, a semester shy of a second degree in environmental science. 

When I entered the workforce, the need for my profession was on the incline (thank goodness), _q_tweetable:In addition to expanding high schools, we are seeing an increase in career and technology campuses, so that “no child left behind” has become “no potential left unexplored.”_q_and I started working for a firm that specialized in the design of educational/learning environments in Texas. My education brought me full circle—to a firm that was creating (and improving) the spaces and buildings that I had just recently left.

During the past 20-plus years at the same firm, while designing what we now appropriately call learning environments, I’ve seen the impact of technology that people had always said was imminent. But I’ve also seen where that technology has not yet affected anything significantly.

The reality of progress over a set amount of time is that it is determined by progress over the same amount of time that precedes it. For example, the libraries of today are designed by the librarians who have been stockpiling books for more than 20 years, and the desire to eliminate them exclusively in favor of technology may take another 20 years to become a reality. More appropriately, the spaces we design today are being experienced by the architects, engineers, and educators of tomorrow.

What other major trends from yesterday are helping to inform tomorrow? Here are a few:


Shadow Creek High School incorporates collaboration space and technology throughout to support ever-evolving learning models and provides an abundance of transparency and natural light to create a connection to nature and provide physical and emotional security.


Safety and security

Regardless of your political view or upbringing, gun violence is on the rise—and alarmingly at schools and other places where learning (not sheltering-in-place) should be the priority. The most recent tragedy in Texas hits as close to home as I ever want it to, occurring less than an hour from my own home, in a community where I have family. There is no single answer to this horrible question, but I truly believe that the big picture answer lies in the environment, albeit more the psychological and sociological ones, not the physical environment.

The learning environments of yesterday, still being designed and constructed in some parts of the country, are about containment and control. There is a need to keep the students together and positively influence their behavior as much as possible, ensuring there is enough supervision. The fact is that our new reality includes competing needs to provide easy exit in one type of emergency, sheltering in-place when needed, while ensuring hindered entrance in others.

Looking at the learning environments we design today, they are focused on engagement, with more glass, more visibility, encouraging more interaction and collaboration. With a mixture of faculty and administration from different generations, some believe in this need for more interaction, while others still believe in stand (or sit) and deliver instruction, only leaving the classroom when absolutely necessary.

It is believed by some that this increased visibility encourages bad behavior, including horrible events like the ones we are seeing all too frequently in the news. The reality is that when we change our definition of “visibility,” we find that open is better. Increased interaction between students and faculty helps, especially movement into the hallway by teachers.

Compare the concept to what you know in your work environment. What occurs when the boss never comes out of his or her office?

The schools we are designing today, at all levels, encourage more openness, more collaboration, and affect the behavior of both students and faculty. This means that they have more access to each other, more chances to react, and more chances to prevent. Students monitor each other because they can see each other, as can the faculty.


The LEED-Gold certified Gloria Marshall Elementary School was the first school in Houston to use geothermal heating and cooling and includes a science garden, eco-pond, above-ground cistern, and water trough to teach students integrated concepts about math and science.


Sustainability and green architecture

Sustainable design was ingrained in my DNA, growing up reading Mother Earth News, working at blueberry farms, Christmas tree farms, and family farms from the age of 13. My second degree in environmental studies was supposed to be my self-proclaimed accreditation as a sustainable designer. When I entered the workplace, however, I found only a part of the world was ready for what I was selling. At one point, a senior architect told me that “this whole green thing” wouldn’t catch on.

“It was just a fad,” he said.

I knew this from my studies in college, but the “fad” started from agrarian roots, then was fantasized by groups in the ’60s that wished to unhitch from the grid and live off the land. Their tiny houses were a necessity, not a cool new concept. The outcast hippies of yesterday are now the mainstream students in many parts of the country.

The great news is that the advances in sustainable building design developed over the past 20 years—rooted in concepts well over 100 years old—are all becoming standards in our buildings. Saving money is really the driver, but I’ll never tell if you don’t. What the students of today are experiencing, even if passive, is affecting them. Solar panels in elementary schools are teaching our students about renewable energy, just as the orientation of our buildings are teaching them that the heat of the sun can be reduced, increasing their comfort while still connecting them to the outside world.

We are where many of us dreamt that we would be—designing buildings that are more efficient because it is what we do, not what we do to be different.


Houston Community College’s Central South Campus Workforce Center provides student training and certifications in business and technology applications, sustainable energy systems, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, robotics, welding, and pipe fitting


Technical education

Growing up in a rural (mostly farming) community, more than half of our high school was dedicated to career and technical education courses—or “shop” and “ag” classes. This did not seem abnormal to me, even when attending college. But with changes to curriculum and testing, the high schools that we designed in the early 21st century had less than 20 percent dedicated to these course options. The belief was that math and science needed to take precedence, and community colleges could more effectively teach these other courses after high school graduation.

In the construction market, after this shift, there started to be a shortage of skilled labor, as all students were encouraged to attend college. Ironically, there was also a shortage of doctors, since the lesson was “get out of high school, get a degree, and start earning six figures within five years of graduation.”

The system has recovered, with both community colleges and high schools increasing their career and technical education offering, combining them with science, technology, arts, and math. In the most recent high school that I helped design, almost half of the building was career and technical education, including culinary arts, technology-based curriculum, and traditional “shop” and “ag” classes. These courses not only help students that may not be attending a four-year university but allow those that are college bound to focus on upper level instruction in college, rather than learning the basics.

In addition to expanding high schools, we are seeing an increase in career and technology campuses, so that “no child left behind” has become “no potential left unexplored.” 

These new dedicated CTE high schools (and traditional high schools with more career-focused learning spaces) have brought forward many more opportunities for collaboration, increasing the chances for student success because they are preparing early for today’s more collaborative work environments. With cooperative efforts from local community colleges, some utilizing the same facilities after hours and within dual-credit programs, these new facilities have provided head starts and even brought back students to catch up where previous systems fell short.


The next 20 years

So, what about our next 20 years? What will it hold for us and for the learning environments we design?

What if … all the buildings we designed had no footprint at all, acting like tree-houses within their environment, naturally teaching the next generation how to conserve resources and respect the power of nature? From what I’ve seen, this is happening, with best practices now incorporated into regulations and building codes. We just need to keep ourselves from hindering its progression.

What if … our schools were designed like open boxes—even if they weren’t all glass—looking and feeling like we have no secrets to hide from one another, safer because we know more about each other, not because we are isolated from each other? Even though it doesn’t seem like it now, I see this as possible, and hopefully our future … if our reaction is to progress rather than digress.

What if … everyone was encouraged to be what they can be, not what others feel they should be, offered the ability to start the skilled part of their education when they were 10, instead of when they were 18? It’s already rebounded, so next for us may be to catch up with what others are doing around the globe and continue to develop what international students see in our education system already.

There is no doubt in my mind that looking back on the last 20 years is where the answers are, and taking a lesson from my “old friend” Ferris Bueller (with a twist) may be all we need:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around (and back) once in a while, you could miss it.”


About the Author

Erin Machac

Erin Joseph Machac has 20 years of experience managing projects for Stantec. Erin’s philosophy on quality is built on three main premises: first—great design; second—great service; and third—great client relationships.

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