A team of high school students from Albemarle and Western are redesigning spaces at UVa's Curry School of Education. From left: Kevin Breen, Natalie Li, Nick Martindale, Cami Pastore, Rayshad Lindsay, Michael LaBelle. Not present: Manish Dahal. Credit: Credit: Kayli Wren, Charlottesville Tomorrow

On the third floor of the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, a team of Albemarle County high-schoolers is in the midst of redesigning innovative spaces for students and faculty as part of what the county school division is calling the Project Pool.

The concept of the Project Pool, piloted this summer with five local internship initiatives, is to allow high school students to learn real-world skills through community-based problem-solving projects.

“We were looking for experiences where students would have input and could actually influence the process and really impact change,” said Mike Craddock, a lead instructional coach for the school division.

At the Curry School, faculty and staff wanted to redesign their work spaces to reflect the new classrooms and models of learning in modern high schools, so they partnered with ReinventED Lab, a local nonprofit, to participate in the Project Pool.

“We are trying to be more student-centered,” said professor Jennie Chiu, the project supervisor. “The first part of being student-centered is actually getting students’ opinion and involving them in their own educational decisions.”

The students mapped out a realistic plan to transform the floor’s underused Teachers Lab, lounge and hallway. The Teachers Lab will be a space for students and teachers alike to collaborate on projects, work independently and use as they wish.

“Right now, it’s really just a bland room,” said Albemarle High School student Cami Pastore. “So we did a lot of work trying to add a lot of things to make it a bright space that would be inspiring for people to work in.”

The students’ design includes adjustable workbenches, bookshelves for textbooks and displaying finished projects, a large mural to liven up the space, an 8- by 4-foot whiteboard and a cork board so students and teachers can communicate by posting praise or feedback.

“I imagine people sitting on their workbenches and having their laptops out and collaborating with their work, discussing things on the whiteboard,” said Albemarle student Natalie Li.

The lounge space currently only has one table and seats two people, said Albemarle student Rayshad Lindsay.

“[So we thought] of a way to make it more colorful, to make sure everyone can just come here and relax,” Lindsay said. 

The two main walls will be painted a bright aqua color, and additions to the current space include a Keurig coffee maker, a rug and more comfortable seating with tables.

“Everything that’s going into this space, what the space is going to be, is 100 percent their ideas,” said Jacob Hardin, the project’s intern coordinator. “I think that every single time we work with people who are in high school, it’s eye-opening. We already know that their perspectives are valuable, but [here we] see them realize that their perspectives are valued.”

Finally, the students approached the hallway.

“People just walk through it and we really want to make it more interactive,” Li said. “Right now, it’s a little plain.”

The bright design the students have in mind for the walls is a honeycomb pattern with shades of blue and aquamarine. They also have picked out comfortable benches and chairs for people to relax or study with friends.

The students also designed a Curry sign for the hallway that will use different materials for each letter: wood blocks, interactive gears, Legos, copper wire and rubber bands stretched between nails.

“It’s been like the brain child of all of us,” said Albemarle student Nick Martindale. “It’s going to be a total eye-catcher when you walk in the hallway.”

The total estimated cost of completing the new designs is about $4,800, which will be covered by the Curry School.

The goal is to order and assemble the entire space before the fall semester starts. To make that happen, the students are making final adjustments to gain approvals from people such as the fire marshal and school manager.

Whether it’s suggestions from Chiu about the vibe of the chosen mural or hard “no’s” on paint colors from a school manager, the students are taking the feedback in stride.

“I think probably the most valuable thing I’ve learned is to work within constraints,” Li said. “I’ve learned a lot in terms of how to design in the real-world environment.”

Keaton Wadzinski, design project facilitator for the county schools, said opportunities such as the Project Pool internships allow for authentic learning.

“We put up this artificial barrier to say [learning] has to be academic, four core areas in the school, whereas in reality, learning is everywhere,” Wadzinski said. “When you give students the opportunity to do these types of learning experiences, they go from, ‘Will this be on the test?’ to ‘Where else can I do projects like this?’”

Craddock said experiential learning opportunities, such as the Project Pool paid internships, also help students to stand out to colleges and employers.

This summer, Albemarle County Public Schools reached out to students and conducted interviews before setting them up with community projects. The next phase will be developing a system where community organizations can advertise projects on a website and students can apply directly.

“We see this as an opportunity to engage with organizations in the community to say, ‘Hey, we have some exceptionally talented children that are ready, willing and able to come out and do high-quality work for you,’” Craddock said.