Residents touring 1 of 4 new science labs at Buford Middle School

Three-dimensional printers, giant touch-screen monitors, and moveable lab tables designed to promote student collaboration are just a few of the flourishes Charlottesville City Schools officials highlighted Monday at Buford Middle School.

Representatives from Governor Bob McDonnell’s office, the Virginia Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation were on-hand for the opening of the Buford Engineering Design Academy, a $1.4 million, 9,600-square-foot, 4-science lab renovation at Buford.

“We are profoundly grateful to the many people who have shared their time, resources, and expertise because they believe that this project will impact math and science learning in our public schools, throughout our Commonwealth, and potentially throughout the world,” Charlottesville Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins said.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony also tagged Buford as the first public school in Virginia to become a part of the Commonwealth Engineering Design Academies. Officials said it was also the country’s first public school laboratory for advanced manufacturing.

This multi-site, multi-division laboratory school will expand to include Charlottesville High School, as well as Albemarle County’s Jack Jouett Middle School and Albemarle High School.

Originally, the price tag was slated at about $690,000, but upgrades to the school’s electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems increased prices, as did the rebound in the construction market and the quick deadline for completion.

Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects designed the new-look labs that feature locally-sourced, native wood entranceways and indirect and solar lighting. Director of Sustainable Design Steve Davis said the project pushes back against older school buildings that resemble factories.

“We know now that the most successful learning doesn’t happen through that mechanism,” Davis said of the factory model. “And the ways that schools are teaching kids reflect some of that.”

“Certainly now when you talk to teachers and educators you hear a lot more emphasis on…collaborative learning, hands-on learning,” Davis added. “What it means is that the spaces and furnishings we need to support that radical change in how we teach and educate have to change.”

Coinciding with the opening of Buford’s labs, both school divisions are talking about enhancing learning spaces.

In spring 2014, Charlottesville High School will play home to a new advanced manufacturing lab, and with the hope of improving aging buildings, the Charlottesville School Board discussed separating maintenance and improvement projects within the Capital Improvement Plan at a September meeting.

The Albemarle School Board is considering building a new northern high school that will incorporate online and internship learning, and is already redesigning learning spaces throughout the county as part of the division’s Design 2015 program.

But during a learning spaces conversation at a September Albemarle County School Board meeting, Board Member Pam Moynihan urged her colleagues not to lose sight of the teacher’s role in student learning.

“Technology is great, a contemporary learning environment is great, but the teacher and that person-to-person individual communication is still what is going to engage that student the best,” Moynihan said.

“Students often know who those best teachers are and the students want to get into those classes because those are the teachers that are going to engage those students,” Moynihan added. “The key driver of that is the personal relationship that the teacher builds with the students and the individual instruction that they’re given.”

Charlottesville High School freshmen Thomas Butler and Carrington Gallihugh, who spent the summer designing curriculum with University of Virginia engineering and education professors and Buford staff, also said the teacher is the key to engagement.

Butler and Gallihugh said that while they think the new spaces will spark curiosity within students, they are engaged by teachers who are humorous, exciting, and allow students to test out their own ideas and solve their own problems. 

Christopher Hulleman, Professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said that designing collaborative work spaces can work well because of the students’ social natures, but that doing so requires teachers to know their students’ personalities.

“In middle school kids want to be social, and that can be a really good thing,” Hulleman said. “Belonging could be infused into how they’re learning, but the teacher has to be mindful in how they do that.”

“It could break down and the kids are just going to talk about Friday night,” Hulleman added. “But if the teacher can leverage the class in such a way that they can take advantage of the social aspect, it can really go a long way.”

However Libbey Kitten, Science Coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools, feels that focusing too much on collaboration can skew the fact that it’s been a part of education for years.

“We’ve always had to communicate and we’ve always had to collaborate and perform critical thinking,” Kitten said. “The piece that’s different is technology.”

A large piece of what’s changed is that students now have multiple ways to receive direct instruction beyond the teacher, Kitten said, citing YouTube and Google as examples.

And while Kitten said that school divisions’ can’t replace face-to-face interaction with technology, she thinks Charlottesville’s blended model will benefit the students.

“I think if we put it in front of the kids and watch them,” Kitten said, “we’ll learn from that.”