Hands-on learning: designing for a more resilient economy

Advanced manufacturing education and the next generation of technical skill

As disruptions to the global supply chain continue to volatilize world economies, the U.S. is taking steps to bolster its own economic resilience. A June 2021 report by The White House, “Building Resilient Supply Chains, Revitalizing American Manufacturing, And Fostering Broad-Based Growth,” outlines recommendations for strengthening U.S. domestic manufacturing capabilities and supply chains in key sectors. The report also recommends that the U.S. create “an ecosystem of producers and innovators including (small and mid-size enterprises) and skilled workers” supported by “pathways to quality jobs… through sector-based community college partnerships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training.”

Indeed, community colleges and even high schools have a role to play in ensuring the nation’s economic resilience. Increasingly, academic institutions are investing in thoughtful design to facilitate the unique, hands-on education they provide students. Well-designed learning environments are critical to building tomorrow’s skilled labor workforce. Read on to learn about a few standout K-12 and higher education trade schools around the country.

Fountain Inn High School | Greenville, South Carolina
Prioritizing Visibility

While courses in industrial education—from woodworking to auto mechanics—were once relegated to the back of schools, new plans for clean industry and advanced manufacturing classes are proudly positioned front-of-house. The front entrance of the new Fountain Inn High School in Greenville, South Carolina, proudly puts these innovative new project-based lab spaces on the façade, dedicating 20,000 square feet of the new building to support these hands-on learning spaces.

“This type of skillset is so different from, say, more traditional vocational technology curriculum,” says Planning Principal Aimee Eckmann. “Flexible lab spaces we designed are meant for clean, real-world learning that accommodates both students and advanced manufacturing equipment with ease.”

Fountain Inn’s advanced manufacturing wing is the front door of the new school: a long, double-height workshop space is located at the front of the building, with windows providing natural light and connectivity to the entry and other learning spaces, paired with warm red brick. The juxtaposition of materials speaks to the skillsets being cultivated within—mixing the industrial and the technical. It also speaks to the balanced, modern design language of the entire project. The materials differentiate the advanced manufacturing curriculum and let in bountiful light for students and visitors.

Ozarks Technical Community College | Springfield, Missouri
Focusing on Flexibility

Technology moves quickly, so flexibility and adaptability to new ideas and tools a schools’ design is key to the success of any advanced manufacturing student. At Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Missouri, the newly designed Robert W. Plaster Center includes tracks for movable walls for adjusting class sizes, projector screens, and stadium-style seating for students to engage with audiovisual presentations by teachers or visiting industry partners. Its specialized high bay areas—double- or triple- height workshop spaces encased in steel and glass—are at the core of the school.

“We’ve prioritized spaces tailored to the new generation of skilled manufacturing—additive, rather than subtractive, manufacturing,” says design leader Eileen Pedersen. Additive manufacturing employs technology like 3D printing, where students and professionals fill space with material rather than casting a mold, a more antiquated industrial process.

“This project places emphasis on the students’ pride of place,” says Pedersen. “The architecture communicates the importance and skill of this type of education, and welcomes local industry partners into a space that they also feel matches the rigor of their work.”

Playful, warm wood details add to quiet study spaces.
The technical high bay areas are well-ventilated and double-height to allow for all types and sizes of machinery and tools to be introduced.

Proviso West High School | Hillside, Illinois
The Power of Partnerships

Local commercial partnerships are invaluable connections and mentor opportunities for students in advanced manufacturing programs. So, plans for curricula and collaborative spaces are shaped by input from local industry partners. At Proviso West High School in Hillside, Illinois, the school invested in career and technical education as part of the first phase of the District’s Facilities Master Plan, led by Perkins&Will; a plan sparked by community interest in developing opportunities for good, skilled jobs for students not on a college-bound track.

“These living, breathing partnerships ensure that students are getting real-time exposure to networking opportunities, and applying necessary skills to strengthen the pipelines from school to the workforce.”

Senior Project Architect Michael Dolter describes the architecture acting as what he calls a “bridge to industry” for the students, emphasizing that not all learners thrive in traditional classroom environments. Therefore, Proviso West pivots toward more hands-on learning modes—designed to accommodate a variety of tools, machines, and computers for students to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. The result is a workshop-to-classroom ratio that allows for easy, seamless connectivity between tools, equipment, and classrooms.

Collin College | Allen, Texas
Letting Nature In, and Out

A newly opened technical college campus outside Dallas, Texas is a story of partnerships. This campus provides specialized trade and workforce training, offering courses and emphasizing top-tier technical skills that focus on solving regional job market demands. Collin College is located in the state’s fastest-growing county, Collin, and has shifted its focus from being an academic transfer campus to providing training around industry needs.  The new campus building dedicated to advanced manufacturing, information technology, construction, health science, and logistics opened its doors in 2020, with stunning, daylight-filled classrooms, labs, and maker spaces, separate yet connected visually via double-height glass and lush, landscaped corridors. Besides its aesthetic appeal, the visibility also allows students to display their work for all to see.

Collin College’s campus is bisected by a bioswale of tall grasses, trees, shrubs, and flowers that bloom year-round. The bioswale acts as a rainwater capture system, and is an oasis for pollinators. It’s also a beautiful backdrop for students to gaze at through their classroom windows, a respite while working long hours in the outdoor trade yards, or next to which they can eat lunch while seated on a picnic table outdoors. The self-shaded outdoor spaces offer a myriad of options for informal gathering, moments of meditation, and even outdoor educational curricula.

Concrete, glass, and metal are the main materials, creating a crisp and clean palette for the project.
The fiber cement facade is punctured by dynamic windows throughout, opening the classrooms and workshops to abundant natural light.

At the core of these projects is an enthusiasm for using design to better connect students to their communities, and ensure that each student has the best possible chance to engage in an exciting and growing industry that benefits the world around them. In today’s economy, more and more jobs require technical expertise and soft skills, though those skills are not necessarily taught in the traditional classroom. Industry leaders across the country are identifying this gap.

From a programmatic perspective, shifting learning methods from traditional to technical experience is not dissimilar to the trend of hands-on experiential learning that’s infiltrating all levels of K-12 and Higher Education design and education. Advanced manufacturing puts student projects and futures in their own hands, with the support of deeply engrained school-to-industry partnerships to bring the field to their fingertips.

This local support is key to broader innovation in the field, and is invaluable to supporting and guiding a new generation of diverse and inclusive designers, consultants, and fabricators. The AEC industry is deeply interconnected, relying on product chains and construction techniques from all over the world. By fostering community bonds that uplift students from all socio-economic backgrounds, and all types of learning styles and career visions, we can disrupt the one-size-fits-all method of design education and become more inclusive, and therefore, more resilient as a profession.

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