Within the world of education, teaching and learning take center stage, but influencing these functions is the overall educational ecosystem — what our designers call the “Ecology of Education.” Through this lens, we study how students interact with each other, teachers, and support staff and how these groups interact with and within their environment. At Cushing Terrell, our design practice follows the motto: “Imagine… Create… Improve.” Our approach to the Ecology of Education is no different. We strive to: 1) imagine the possibilities for learning; 2) create intentional, sustainable, holistic environments; and 3) improve our knowledge through research, evaluation, and experience.


Designing Optimal, Evolving Learning Environments

The role of the designer is to immerse themselves in the world of the user groups they design for while keeping an eye on the bigger picture, pulling in knowledge and inspiration from a variety of sources. How we live, work, and learn is constantly changing, and so must the practice of how we design for the built environment. With this desire to understand user groups as well as address fluctuating needs and circumstances, our approach to design must be responsive and facilitate the transfer of knowledge and new ideas.

The pillars of our Ecology of Education design approach are: Imagine Learning, Create Environments, and Improve Knowledge. The activities aligned with these pillars do not occur in a vacuum — each project and project phase inform the others in a process that begins and ends in research.

Pillar One: Imagine Learning

The methods, deliverables, and project examples that depict how we take our understanding of education, as well as knowledge from other sectors, and apply it to the development and design of learning environments.

The objectives and tactics we employ.

Enable future-ready leaders. Regardless of the curriculum, age of the student, or location of the school, the goal of education is to equip learners with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in life. Whether focusing on a career path; attending a university, college, or trade school; enlisting in military service; or embarking upon any life adventure, we must ensure students can thrive, actively contributing to their own personal growth, cultivating growth in others, and improving the world around them. In partnership with our clients and their unique vision for education, we aim to imagine all the possible ways students might prepare for their futures in order to design optimal environments in which to learn. 

Consider the whole student. It’s widely accepted that academic success is neither a guarantee nor the sole contributor to success in life. To prepare students for their futures, schools must teach to the whole student, including supporting the development of social skills and healthy relationships, understanding and supporting their emotional needs, and teaching students how to care for their own mental and physical well-being. To be effective, this must occur within an environment and culture that maintain an unerring sense of psychological safety, reinforced not only by policies and procedures, but also systems, equipment, and spaces that support physical security, social-emotional growth, and intellectual stimulation. 

Employ the right methods, modes, tools, and equipment. While we tend to recognize and draw inspiration from similarities in interests, talents, and skills, each student approaches learning from a unique perspective. Students find their passions and develop their strengths through various methods and modes of learning, using tools and equipment that bridge their personalities with the task at hand. Within this spectrum of human difference, great school design starts with an understanding of the broader educational vision, identifies various functions that teach to the whole student, and imagines strategies that allow every element of the learning environment to accommodate and celebrate diverse needs. 

What this looks like.

Treasure Valley Community College, Career & Technical Education Center: Ontario, Oregon

Pillar Two: Create Environments

Imagining what learning can look like ultimately leads to the creation of those environments, but how do we get it right in real life? A skilled design partner can help you take “pie-in-the-sky” ideas and fit them into your budget, timeline, and strategy.

The objectives and tactics we employ.

Every space must be intentional. Instead of thinking in terms of creating a building, we start by thinking in terms of purpose. At Cushing Terrell, the planning phase of our creative process involves comprehensive documentation of the educational, environmental, and operational functions (the purposes) your facility should support. Through this understanding, we come to size rooms appropriately, realize necessary adjacencies, discover possibilities for shared use, identify efficiencies through the flexibility of spaces, and apply intent to the finishes, furniture, fixtures, equipment, systems, and utilities provided within each space. While thinking intentionally about each space, we must also think of long-term relevancy. If schools built today are expected to last a minimum of 50 years, we must consider the building’s ability to remain relevant, which is contingent upon its ability to adapt to a variety of functions and user groups.  

Prioritize sustainability, health, and well-being. Did you know that high school students today rank sustainability among their top considerations when choosing which colleges to attend? At Cushing Terrell, sustainability, health, and well-being go hand in hand. As we strive to create better lives for future generations, nowhere is this truer than in our schools. We see that sustainability must be achieved through not one, but several interconnected perspectives. A school must realize sustainability through the longevity of the building’s components and its relevance as a space for learning. It must realize efficiency in both energy use and cost. And it and must address health holistically through the life cycle of its materials, the methods of their production, respect for the building’s site and surrounding context, and the quality of conditions provided to all occupants living and learning within it. 

Design holistically for the intersection of ecosystems. Something holistic is “characterized by comprehension of the parts as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.” Through our planning efforts and our approach to sustainability, we achieve a comprehensive understanding of each individual function, space, and element required of your school. Through design, we synthesize these individual components into a cohesive campus that unites the necessary functions, providing a school that supports the myriad daily educational practices and learning opportunities, as well as helping to express a unifying campus culture. 

What this looks like.

Montana State University, Romney Hall: Bozeman, Montana

Pillar Three: Improve Knowledge

The knowledge base we pull from to inform our project approach and design, including industry research, research collaborations with academia, internal project studies, and new contributions through post occupancy evaluations and occupant surveys.

The objectives and tactics we employ.

Stay attuned to the latest research. Research is constantly unveiling new ways of understanding. The ideal learning environment of the past has been turned upside down by studies in how environmental factors — views, lighting, glare, acoustics, smells, temperature, humidity, air quality, and ventilation, for example — impact our ability to concentrate. Additionally, we now know people learn in different ways and that different subjects can be more deeply understood through different methods of engagement. Drafty lecture halls may not yet be a thing of the past, but the spaces we learn in have evolved to support hands-on learning and group collaboration, not to mention alternative learning environments that are a far cry from a traditional classroom.  

At Cushing Terrell, we’re committed to developing a deeper understanding of how all these factors — environmental, psychological, and biological — impact the daily lives of students and teachers and to what degree they contribute to performance and successful learning. Through continuous study and application of existing industry research as well as analysis of our own design projects, we draw upon a collective body of knowledge to inform our recommendations to clients and guide design decisions.    

Leverage collective experience. Through our collaborative approach of designing with our clients, we understand that a team’s collective experience can stretch the mind beyond the dimensions capable by any one individual. As partners coming together to design the best learning environments possible, administrators, teachers, coaches, students, parents, architects, and engineers each contribute their unique perspectives as shaped by their own distinct experiences. In conjunction with research-based knowledge, our shared experiences enhance our ideas of what schools can and should be, redefining the standards, and reimagining our approach to how people might function within them.   

Never stop learning and improving. The ultimate success of a building’s design is founded upon a dedication to continuous improvement and critical evaluation. While drawing upon experiences from previous projects and incorporating any newly acquired industry knowledge, technical, educational, and environmental standards are captured through our initial planning efforts. Together with our clients, we revisit these standards throughout the design and construction phases to ensure these standards will be met. After a building or campus has opened, evaluation can continue with input from groups involved in the daily life of the building, from students and teachers to administrators and maintenance staff. Through this continuous process, we can identify and realize unforeseen opportunities not only for the project at hand but also for the next project to come.   

What this looks like.

Gallatin High School: Bozeman, Montana

How does this approach support you and your project?

You, your students and staff, and the desired interactions within your learning environment are the key thread to which we apply our learning and expertise. Our multidisciplinary design team approaches each project with constant curiosity and a desire to learn, as well as with knowledge from a variety of sources and perspectives. Whether it be specific to the education community or insights gained from the many other applicable building sectors we specialize in, our knowledge base is here for you, to push the boundaries of education design and optimize the experience for the end user.

Leveraging the Ecology of Education approach, each project is an opportunity to build upon what was previously done, while creating something new. This means we’re not beholden to a specific set of aesthetic ideals, we’re ready and able to assess the unique needs of your students and staff and adapt what we know to design an environment that supports the whole student to be a future-ready learner and a happy, successful adult.

Reach out to our team to learn more about the Ecology of Education and how we can support your projects. Or, share resources, ideas, and project examples you think align with this approach. We’d love to hear from you!

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