Project Type:K-12 Education, School, Classroom, AdditionProject Location: 2107 N Providence Road
Media, Pennsylvania 19063
Design Features:Daylighting, Innovation Lab, Metal Siding
Levels Above Ground:
Questions concerning how students learn do not automatically suggest design solutions, but when the Benchmark School approached William and Chris Sharples, two of the founding principals of SHoP Architects, for help in the development of robotics as a teaching tool, they saw opportunity.
The architects, identical twins and the â€śSHâ€ť in the firmâ€™s name, are alumni of the independent school, founded in 1970, by Irene W. Gaskins, to help students who learn differently. In a recent phone conversation they finished each otherâ€™s rapid-fire sentences, such was their enthusiasm for the school that changed their lives. â€śWe had graduated sixth grade, but our reading comprehension was barely at third-grade level,â€ť said William. Their parents, aware how challenged their apparently bright sons were, enrolled them in the then-new institution. â€śWe were very upset after the first day,â€ť the Sharples said. â€śTwo weeks later, we were having a ball.â€ť
The two were ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia, which the school is geared to address, along with such diagnoses as perceptual difficulties and attention-deficit disordersâ€”by first building confidence and then helping children discover their own ways of learning, an approach that has been influential. â€śWe meet the students where they are, not where their age says they are supposed to be,â€ť explained Betsy Cunicelli, Benchmarkâ€™s director of special projects.
Located in Media, Pennsylvania, 13 miles west of Philadelphia, Benchmark is a five-building, 23-acre campus serving 185 first- through eighth-grade students. Thereâ€™s a heavy focus on reading and math, with instructors applying a wide range of learning research to support students individually in such tasks as time management, persistence, working collaboratively, and thinking critically.
Many dyslexics use visualization and hands-on experiences to commit concepts to memory. Students who struggle to comprehend a verbal explanation of something may understand better by assembling it on their own. This â€śconstructing knowledge through experience,â€ť as Benchmark puts it, is one way students learn.
Benchmarkâ€™s leaders and students visited both SHoPâ€™s Manhattan office and the firmâ€™s lab in an industrial space in Brooklyn, where they saw a repurposed autoâ€“assembly line robot and tools for model-making, comparing fabrication possibilities, and mocking up assemblies to assess their constructability and visual impact. The schoolâ€™s staff was impressed not only by the studentsâ€™ excitement over the lab, but by the iterative problem-solving common in architecture. SHoP and the educators together concluded that an innovation lab could give students new opportunities to choose their own approach for addressing open-ended problems, while collaborating with others to succeed.
The resulting lab is a diminutive 2,200-square-foot glass-and-metal-clad two-story structure tucked like a hinge into a gap between two existing buildings. The full-height glass entry wall puts the Innovation Labâ€™s activities on display, engaging passing students. The upper level houses three spaces for middle-school pupils: two open labs separated by a sliding-glass partition for maximum flexibility, and a small triangular space (for messier projects) wedged between them behind a glazed wall. A classroom for the youngest children is on the lower level. With butcher-block lab-style tables, and counters along the walls for computers, the rooms include sinks, adjustable track lighting, powercord outlets that drop down from the ceiling, and whiteboard wall surfaces.
(Source: Architectural Record)