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University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering
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Building blocks of learning

Architect and engineering professor Jeff Lackney isn't trying to build a high school — he's seeking to build a culture within one.

Like many urban schools, Madison Memorial High School teems with more than 2,000 students who take classes based on age and ability. A junior strong in math might never interact with a freshman weak in the subject — in spite of research that shows students learn better in small communities that mix age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and academic skills. Many big schools are now exploring ways to restructure classroom space and dynamics to create the atmosphere — and benefits to learning — of a smaller school.

As part of a U.S. Department of Education three-year grant program, Memorial is turning its student body into a community, grouping students randomly into one hundred "back yards," each served by a teacher. The back yards link together to form blocks, complete with group projects and elected councils; blocks link into neighborhoods, each with its own 2,000-square-foot community center.

The initial grant proposal for the project was developed by a team of Memorial teachers, parents and School of Education faculty, explains Pamela Nash, Memorial's principal and project director.

Lackney, an assistant professor of engineering who's interested in the sociological effects of space, has been involved in the design of the community centers. "Physical space can encourage prosocial behaviors, such as extracurricular activities and leadership opportunities," he says. "As a result, you can improve a culture through design."

To help create a better learning climate at Memorial, Lackney helped four groups of students brainstorm how the community centers should be designed. "While all four centers are different, each has space for private and group studying and recreation," says Lackney. Many designs included television, telephone, radio, pool table, computer stations, plush chairs, plants and area rugs.

Lackney says the experiment helped students work together and take ownership in their learning environment. And, "when students take more control of their education," he says, "they become more empowered in learning."

Some students' designs have been approved by school administrators and are in the process of being implemented. Lackney plans to study how the centers, students and culture evolve together.

Emily Carlson