What happens when traditional school design and education visionaries collide?

September 26, 2014 Derk Jeffrey

Societal changes meet spatial changes to bring real-world technology into the classroom at a new Maryland high school


By Derk Jeffrey and Pam Loeffelman

The rapid evolution of technology is all around us.

The class of 2027 will start kindergarten this fall. Many of the jobs that they will apply for when they enter the workforce may not even exist yet. Districts and communities across the country – especially in the defense and space industry hub of the greater Maryland-DC area – are faced with a challenge: how to ensure that today’s students are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in college and in 21st century careers.

Many are finding a solution by basing their curricular vision in the principles of Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Applied Learning. This model bridges core academics and cognitive skill development with hands-on, real-world learning experiences, including collaboration, problem solving, and communication.

Partnerships with the business community help enrich the curriculum and encourage students to understand the relevance of what they’re learning. Furthermore, the model seeks to spark the interest and imagination of today’s students, encouraging them to see themselves as tomorrow’s business and industry leaders.

However, when it comes to facilities, the traditional school design lacks the range and types of spaces needed to support the shift in the educational model.


St. Charles High School in Waldorf, Maryland

In order to respond to this shift architecturally, it’s critical to understand how societal changes meet spatial changes. Educational architects must work with districts and communities to first understand their vision for the kind of learning they want to occur in their facility. Then, they can interpret that vision with a design that creates the places and spaces that will facilitate it most authentically.

Charles County Public Schools’ new St. Charles High School in Waldorf, Maryland, is the realization of this concept. A progressive superintendent and supportive school board envisioned a school that fused the STEM curriculum with community partnerships. This combination, they imagined, would enable students to graduate with 21st century digital skills, an understanding of the real-world significance of learning experiences, and a confidence in their ability to pursue and succeed in STEM-based careers.

The district’s new 290,000-square-foot, STEM-focused high school enables learning by virtue of its design.


The main entrance serves as the center of activity, featuring an “agora-style” cafeteria that provides access to the main office, the instructional resource center, the gymnasium, the auditorium, library and STEM program. The design incorporates a high level of transparency between these spaces, highlighting the learning happening within.

Adjacent to the main entrance is the centerpiece of the STEM program: The James E. Richmond Science Center. Aptly named for the visionary behind this project, the science center features cutting-edge technology elements including the Digital Dome and Science on a Sphere.

The Digital Dome is a state-of-the art, 150-seat domed theatre that uses high-resolution and three-dimensional graphics to enhance learning experiences. Programs will allow students to experience what it’s like to go into space, under water, or inside the human body. Built-in interactivity will allow teachers to tailor programs to specific curriculum needs.

Science on a Sphere, developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), uses video projectors to display animated, three-dimensional data on a six-foot diameter sphere. Students can learn how specific environmental scenarios, such as storms, climate change, and ocean currents, can impact Earth and the atmosphere.

As a first – and unique – design element, Stantec worked with NOAA and digital dome technicians to determine how best to incorporate these elements into the facility. Critical to the design was ensuring that these elements would be a visible part of the identity of St. Charles High School and easily accessible for district-wide and community use.

We may not know exactly what tomorrow’s jobs will look like. However, by starting with an engaged community of users, developing an outcome-focused vision, and determining the kinds of spaces needed to support that vision, communities, district and educators can feel confident that their students will graduate with the skills they need today to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.


This blog is adapted from an article appearing in the Fall/Winter issue of ASBO Matters News Journal, a publication of the Association of School Business Officials, Maryland and District of Columbia chapter, published by NAYLOR. 

About the Author

Derk Jeffrey

Derk’s work with public school clients for the past 25 years has focused on strengthening the connection between architecture and learning.

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