Design for Experiential Learning and Workforce Readiness

The need for a skilled workforce in high-demand fields and the ever-increasing cost of a university degree have not only led to a shift in the predominant education models, but also a shift in how we design learning environments. One of the newer models — career and technical education (CTE) — is a hybrid version of vocational education, melding both academics and hands-on training. It targets students earlier in their learning journey and covers a broad range of industry sectors (see sidebar).

Given the global pandemic we’re currently experiencing, and the additional demand placed on the healthcare and technology industries, our support and appreciation for these programs, colleges, educators, and students has grown exponentially. It has become incredibly clear just how important it is to equip our future workforce with the latest advancements and training.

Student-centered, student-empowered, student-engaged

To support this hands-on approach where students learn by doing, secondary and post-secondary educational environments are getting a revamp. Our team approaches the design of these facilities from a research perspective, collaborating with local business, industry, and community partners to ensure relevancy. We prioritize the need for future flexibility in order to accommodate growth, new technologies, career proficiencies, and workforce drivers.

What exactly does this look like? It’s not your average classroom. Designs are student-centered, technology-enriched, and include active labs, workshops, project and demonstration areas — places for experimentation, implementation, research, and development. These are just a few examples of what experiential learning can look like.

CTE industry sectors:
Agriculture and Natural resources
Arts, Media, and Entertainment
Building and Construction Trades
Business and Finance
Education, Child Development, Family Services
Energy, Environment, and Utilities
Engineering and Architecture
Fashion and Interior Design
Health Science and Medical Technology
Hospitality, Tourism, and Recreation
Information and Communication Technologies
Manufacturing and Product Design
Marketing Sales and Service
Public Services

Laramie County Community College: Flexible Industrial Technology Building

“While some see the unique design that allows for flexibility, energy efficiency, and aesthetics, many of us also see the innovations this building has in how students interact, learn, and demonstrate their skills. That’s what they take to the workforce, and this building is exceptional in how it helps accomplish those things.”   — LCCC President Joe Schaffer

The Flexible Industrial Technology Building at Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Wyoming promotes “learning on display” with design highlights that include:

  • An emphasis on community engagement via “showcase” spaces where local businesses and industry leaders can interact with students.
  • Large open bays for diesel labs, welding docks, and project display areas make the building itself a teaching tool with visual connections throughout.
  • Moveable wall systems create spaces that can be re-configured for lectures, group collaboration, or community events.
  • Social/study/gathering areas integrate art to reflect industry and culture.
  • An indoor/outdoor statement courtyard fosters student camaraderie and academic pride.
  • Wind modeling informed placement of walkways, storm drainage, and entries to make the courtyard comfortable year-round.
  • The building incorporates sustainable strategies such as water conservation, daylighting, passive solar heating, and systems aimed at minimizing energy loss.

When we first envisioned the Flex Tech building, we laid out and tested numerous CTE programs to see if the design would accommodate their diverse curriculums. On a recent post occupancy re-visit, with three years of instruction and use, we were extremely impressed by how adaptable the facility was for the college’s ever-changing needs.

The biggest surprise was to see that the Wyoming Highway Patrol training academy had moved into the southern second floor suite. It was an unanticipated program, but functioning in the space very well. The welding instructor boasted that his program was the fastest growing on campus and had expanded into the fabrication area to keep up with student demand and instruction. Additionally, health industry partnerships were realized and the diesel tech program had several trucks and tractors thanks to their Navistar International partnership.

Another thing to celebrate: The project is an award-winner recognized with an AIA Montana Excellence in Design Citation Award and a Grand Prize Award for excellence in educational facility design from Learning By Design.

College of Southern Idaho: Health Sciences and Human Services Building

With our cross-market knowledge of both education and healthcare design, our team melds forward-thinking strategies to benefit health science students. We create spaces that inspire wellness, visionary ideas, and new ways for students to interact with patient care, helping young professionals grow in their fields.

For the Health Sciences and Human Services Building at the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) — home to the state’s largest healthcare education program — we applied a design strategy aimed at delivering a dynamic, highly serviceable facility that showcases regional sustainability. Key highlights of the building design:

  • Supports continued growth of CSI’s healthcare department with dedicated space for dental, EMT/paramedic, addiction studies, nursing, radiology, surgical technology, and workforce education.
  • Incorporates hands-on, high-tech simulation labs and learning spaces — key for successful real-life learning opportunities.
  • Covers all programming needs, including shared study areas in proximity to all curriculums and public areas to promote social interaction and community engagement.
  • Features two-story commons with seating and thoroughfares for a comfortable yet dynamic environment with optimal wayfinding.
  • Incorporates laptop kiosks to provide students with docking stations for work between classes and small group collaboration.
  • Provides enhanced access to natural light and views of nature to increase student and faculty well-being.
  • Building orientation and geometry were a direct response to extensive daylight modelling, resulting in a reduced need for electric lighting and mechanical cooling.
  • Site planning and placement of parking facilities are sensitive to future adjacent structures and community development, allowing for efficient expansion and renovation.

After  several years of instruction at the Health Sciences and Human Services building, our follow-up site visit uncovered just how popular this center has become on campus and in the community. Key connections and partnerships with St. Luke’s Magic Valley Regional Medical Center and other healthcare providers were apparent and in action. When not in mock labs and surgical centers, we found students in the daylight-filled commons and outdoor balconies, studying, socializing, and attending career fairs. One of the most appreciated attributes of this LEED Gold-certified facility is the daylighting, views, and connection to outdoor amenities. It was fun to see a local food truck lined up at the curb to serve students who streamed out on the nice day to take a break. Students showed pride of place, letting us know that it was their favorite building on campus.

Additional Projects

Other projects in our experiential learning portfolio include the Broussard Center for Nursing and Health Science at Flathead Valley Community College, Gillette College Technical Education Center, Montana Tech’s Natural Resource Research Center, the Dr. Charles Morledge Science Building at Rocky Mountain College, and the Treasure Valley Community College Career and Technical Education Center currently under construction.

Reach out to our education design leads if you’re interested in learning more about these projects and our capabilities in experiential learning design.

Corey Johnson

Corey is an associate principal and co-director of Cushing Terrell's education design studio. His 20+ years of experience as an architect and studio lead have solidified his passion for education design, and with that, his drive to explore, invent, and continuously learn from the people he is designing with and those he is designing for — including each next generation. His goal is to create innovative, highly functional, collaboratively charged learning environments that are infused with technology and adaptability to meet future needs — what we can predict and even the unknown.