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Learning deeper through the Energy Innovation Center’s Design Challenge

Energy Innovation Center
March29/ 2016

The students walk around a parking lot at the Energy Innovation Center, taking measurements. They look down at their notebooks, which contain “specs” about the space, and then their instructors, two young, hip-looking guys, begin to talk about the need for “design to be human centered. And you need to understand not just what you’re going to be creating but the story of where you’re going to be putting it.”

Though it feels like we’re crashing a university architecture course, what we’ve actually walked in on is the Energy Innovation Center’s Design Challenge, and the students are high schoolers from four local schools – Moon Area, Montour, Chartiers Valley and West Allegheny. Their instructors are actually associated with the Penn State Center Pittsburgh, and the design challenge is very, very real.

It’s a unique program created by Norton Gusky, a local educational technology broker. Norton contacted folks at the EIC – housed in the old Connelley Trade School in the Lower Hill District, because he knew that the EIC is a building still changing and evolving. The EIC has been totally renovated to be a clean, efficient, green and sustainable building, and since it’s still undergoing changes it’s a perfect laboratory for students of architecture, engineering, mathematics, design, landscaping – you name it!

“This is a challenge with the EIC and the Parkway West Career and Technology Center,” Norton says, explaining that there are really many local high schools involved, and that there are “two” design challenges. One group of high school students from Carlynton, Keystone Oaks, Quaker Valley and South Fayette were tasked with redesigning the courtyard entrance of the EIC facing Bedford Avenue.

“They had to look at landscaping, art and technology issues,” Norton explains. The students visited the EIC, took pictures, notes and measurements, and went back to their respective schools to create solutions. They then meet as a group, share their ideas and develop a consolidated proposal that pitched to the EIC and a team of judges from Penn State University later in the month.

The group visiting the EIC today are being tasked to create a solution to the water run-off problem at the EIC. Penn State Center Pittsburgh is the client, provides key support to the students through their instructors, and has developed a series of solutions for similar problems around the region, so they are a perfect partner.

Lisa Kunst Vavro, sustainable environments manager and engaged scholarship manager for Penn State Center Pittsburgh explains a little more about the challenge:

“Several schools have decided to have a design competition within the realm of sustainability. This group is talking about green infrastructure and how to mitigate storm water at an old site that’s almost 100 years old, the Letsche School,” which is owned by the EIC.

Vavro believes the high schoolers are up to the challenge, and, in fact, “it would be even better if they were junior high school students because then we could really plant the seed for what they could do in their professional life. But now is fine. Penn State is a land grant institution for Pennsylvania, so we try to take our research-oriented information out to different constituencies and that includes high school students. We try to embed in them the need for being sustainable, for trying to incorporate green infrastructure maybe even in their residential landscape, and we feel if we can do that, we’re batting 1,000.”

Back to the students. They pass the EIC’s parking lot, where the instructors are talking about biowells and raingardens, created to capture water runoff. “Where the cars are parked is pervious asphalt,” one young instructor says, pointing to the ground. “Water goes through it. And then we have about 18 inches of clean stone underneath to act as a reservoir.

“Underneath this is also a five foot long perforated pipe, so all the water coming off the roof of this building – which is going to be roughly 2 million gallons a year, come down into this pipe and then slowly drains in” to the sewer system.

The students are rapt; some ask questions, others take pictures, and one young woman is recording the entire session on her video camera. The group talks about “parcels” and “interacting with spaces” and “water treatment,” and then they tour the EIC.

“We’re taking them up to see the green roof,” Norton says, “because one of the high schools, in its environmental science class, is studying green roofs. Today they have the chance to actually go and see one and see why it can be used as part of a water management project.

“When we look at making learning meaningful,” he continues, “and having it so that students see that there’s a purpose, often what happens when they’re in the classroom, they never have the context. This is providing students a context.”

It’s also providing the students with a project, which Norton says “allows them to apply their knowledge and it sticks. It’s learning that goes beyond the surface level and becomes what we call deeper learning. This is a really great chance to give the kids that opportunity – what the students here are doing used to be done at the college or post graduate level, and now we’re pushing it down to the high school and possibly middle school.”

So, the students will come up with a proposal for a very real problem – water runoff at the EIC, and how to redesign elements of the Letsche School. And, they will present that to real “clients,” who might possibly use all their ideas, or incorporate part of it, so they can actually have their work realized. They’re taking what they’re learning in school – math, engineering, science, design, art – and applying it to a real life situation.

“This is a chance for the kids to come up with their own ideas and concepts,” Norton concludes. “And we might even get a few landscape architects out of it,” Lisa laughs.

This article originally appeared in the Remake Learning Series on WQED’s website.