Building an education

Graduate students design unique classroom for Charter School

Phuong Le

Staff Writer

A group of University of Houston graduate architecture students are working to give children the chance to learn about science in way.

The first-year graduate students at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture have designed an outdoor science classroom that will allow students in the UH Charter School of Technology to experience nature through a specially designed outdoor-classroom ecosystem housing living organisms.

"(The UH Charter School) has a goal that children should be able to go outside and discover on their own because they are able to be comfortable, but in addition to that, (the architecture school) thinks the structure itself, in how it's designed, encourages science education," said Patrick Peters, an associate professor of architecture who directed the project.

In addition to being a forum in which to hold scientific demonstrations and conduct scientific experiments, the multipurpose outdoor science classroom will provide the Charter School a meeting place in which to have lunches and activities in an outdoor environment, according to Charter School Principal Carolyn Black.

The classroom responds to its environment using mechanical structures like louvers, a series of metal strips resembling blinds, that will repel Houston's summer heat.

The classroom's design also accounts for environmental problems such as weather destruction. The architecture students conducted several experiments, including wind and air measurements, before producing many models of the facility and finalizing plans.

"There has been a preconception that air-conditioning can solve all problems, and things like the operable louver doesn't come to people's minds as a solution because we assume that air-conditioning will solve the problem," Peters explained.

"So, in many ways, it demonstrates the qualities that architecture can have which people have forgotten about."

Such qualities are evident in many aspects of the structure, including the roof, which consists of three planes that slope towards the center. The design is intended to provide shade and channel rain to collect in a pond below, Peters said.

The students are in "Design and Build," a graduate architecture course that is mandatory after the first year of graduate school.

A part of the coursework encourage students to offer design ideas for the outdoor science classroom as part of a group project.

"This course builds on the experience of the previous years, and so there are things that we learn that we apply to the following year, but each project has been unique to this point," Peters said.

One of the students' designs for the roof is a novel way to allow students to see "stars" inside the building during the day.

The south side of the roof was designed with a pattern of holes that represent constellations, giving those inside the building a sort of virtual-reality chance to observe what is impossible to see at night due to the city lights.

"(In) my first design ... I had designed pavilions for wind, constellations and for water," said Mary Edwards, a graduate student who had the idea for a roof full of holes. "I just imagined a curving loop of constellations. (The roof) is just tiny little holes letting limited light come through, so the students will see little pin-holes of light coming back into the building."

Peters' experience with similar projects include the construction of outdoor classrooms at two HISD schools. One at Poe Elementary featured a mechanical shade tree, and the other project, at Red Elementary, was an outdoor science classroom.

"The significant part of the project is that the (graduate students) are building something real," said George Sacaris, an architecture instructor and design furniture specialist who brings technical expertise to the class. "In school, the students generally draw things and never really have any (real hands-on experiences), so the students never know that side of building."

Polly Lecvine, another graduate student, said the design students might also be interested in the project for other reasons.

"A lot of the (students) are parents, and this is for the Charter School," she said. "It's fun to actually have a hand in thinking about what (the kids) might need and building it and all, in terms of an outdoor classroom."

Black explained that the project fits in well with the Charter School's mission, which is to make learning productive and to avoid having students memorizing facts and numbers.

"Charter schools encourage more innovation in public schools," Black explained.

The outdoor science classroom is an example of constructing an innovation for learning against the traditional classroom mode.

"We had some general idea of having a nature center/playscape, instead of a playground with a traditional equipment on it," Black said. "We had the idea of making an environment where children can explore science and also have an experience of nature."

The nature center/playscape concept was studied by Angie Quezada, a lead teacher at the Charter School, who attended a conference on play. Quezada then passed the idea on to Black, who realized the need to build an artificial structure that has viable organisms for the children to observe.

She stressed the fact that children living in big cities like Houston do not have access to natural environments because they are confined in apartments or urban neighborhoods.

The project is financed by the Charter School's fiscal budget of $14,500 and through outside donors, including Walter P. Moore & Associates, an engineering firm.

"(It) wouldn't be possible for the UH Charter School to have the outdoor science classroom without this partnership - not only between the Charter School and the college, but also the College of Architecture and businesses in Houston," Peters said.

The classroom should be completed by Aug. 6.

Visit The Daily Cougar