Does a facility provide inputs for a better learning experience to its occupants?

November 25, 2019

Monica Sierra Aparicio is a master’s student in Building Construction and a Graduate Assistant with the Living Building Equity Champions Program run by Institute Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and recently attended the NAACP Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS) working retreat. In Spring 2020, she will be part of the new VIP: Building for Equity and Sustainability.

As an attendee of the second NAACP Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS) working retreat that took place in Virginia Beach, VA, I had the opportunity to take an off-site tour of the Old Donation School on October 29. Almost at 3:30 p.m. of that Tuesday, a school bus picked us up at The Brock Environmental Center, where the retreat took place. Half an hour later, we were entering the parking lot of the Old Donation School. While staring at the window and devising the building's facade, I thought to myself how different it look compared to others schools I’ve seen in Atlanta and Bogota, the two cities I’ve called home.

By the time we entered the facility and to our surprise, a lovely group of 8th graders wearing the same blue t-shirt was waiting for us. They split us into two groups and the leader of our group graciously started guiding us throughout the facility. While walking between classrooms, laboratories and collaborative spaces a bunch of things caught my attention, including design features and the students’ touch all over the place, which I was not expecting to see on my first visit to a school in the US.

The building besides being huge, colorful and beautiful, has different energy saving features that include the windows and ceiling disposal to allow the entrance of natural light and ventilation, as well as big-ass fans, a rainwater collection and treatment system, a green roof in which different native plants are grown and an apiary is disposed, among other details. All of these features are effectively accompanied by clear signage, making it easier for students and visitors to learn about them.


But beyond the excellent facility and spatial features that the school has, what impressed me the most was the way in which the different spaces were used to promote learning and increase the sense of belonging from students. Almost every classroom has a whiteboard outside, with different class works, capstone issues and a highlight of core values for each grade. I found really interesting as well a table next to the center of the entrance hall, which had different toolkits and working material to learn braille. To my belief, that is a clear way to increase awareness of visually impaired individuals by showing how we can learn and manage to help them under different circumstances.

At the end of the tour, we returned back to the school’s lobby where the 8th graders, accompanied by faculty and a member of the school’s design and construction team kept answering our questions. They mentioned that the school’s curriculum is in constant revision and improvement, since it is based on the student’s performance (the Old Donation School is a gifted one). They also pointed out that they are constantly promoting class activities all throughout the building to make sure that all of the spaces are constantly used. One of our working retreat partners asked a question regarding diversity numbers among students and faculty… they answered that only 3% of faculty are people of color and apparently, the amount of students of color are around the same percentage (out of 1300).

This last statement brought to my mind a thought comparing it with the situation in my hometown country, Colombia. There and up to date, there is still a percentage of children from both rural and urban zones that don’t have the chance to study because of poverty (they have to work instead of studying to survive) or because they have to walk for hours, cross streams and expose themselves to reach their schools, among other reasons. I believe that at a certain point they share the situation that other students with different abilities (maybe categorized as non-gifted) and backgrounds here in the US might have of not being able to study in a facility similar to the Old Donation School.

In my opinion all children without distinction of race, background, religion, etc. should be given the chance to study at interactive classrooms, have an environmentally friendly infrastructure and resources to learn, grow personally, discern and increase their awareness of climate change, hunger, inequality and other world issues in a welcoming and collaborative space for everyone. I also believe that a more diverse faculty can introduce different points of view to the table as well as bringing up different ways to understand the root causes of certain phenomena and diffuse respect for those who think different to us. Ultimately, educators are the ones that instill in us curiosity towards learning, as Isaac Newton said: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Learn more about the VIP: Building for Equity and Sustainability here. This is a new team and we are actively recruiting more undergraduate and graduate students! Taught in the new Kendeda Building, this VIP counts towards the SLS Innovating for Social Impact Program.