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Environmental Charter School in Regent Square lets students design classroom

| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
Environmental Charter School seventh grade students Imara Brown, 12, (left) Zarek Doering, 12, and Shaun Morris, 13, work on a group reading assignment Friday, December 14, 2012. The class worked to design their ideal classroom space. To make their ideals a reality, they teamed up with design students from Carnegie Mellon who rebuilt and reused some of the old furniture to create a new collaborative classroom space. The student's chairs were previously the tops of their desks and desks were replaced with white board table tops. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Environmental Charter School seventh grader Shaun Morris, 13, reads after completing a vocabulary quiz Friday, December 14, 2012. The class worked to design their ideal classroom space. To make their ideals a reality, they teamed up with design students from Carnegie Mellon who rebuilt and reused some of the old furniture to create a new collaborative classroom space. The student's chairs were previously the tops of their desks. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

After students in Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek's seventh-grade classes designed their ideal classroom, teachers overheard one girl complain the work wouldn't change anything at Environmental Charter School in Regent Square.

“I was like, ‘I will not be a liar to these kids,'” King said. “It's important for us to have a relationship of trust.”

King and Kaczmarek brought in nine undergraduate design students from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture to help rebuild the classroom according to the students' ideas.

They met weekly to discuss prototypes and how to use a $1,000 budget, then presented the revamped classroom on Dec. 8.

“Our students basically became their clients,” said Kaczmarek, who teaches a cultural literacy class with King. “Now, it's a brighter room, a more vibrant room — truly a testament to all the work these students put in.”

Instead of individual desks that must be dragged across the floor and rearranged into groups, students got four large tables with lockable wheels and white board surfaces for taking notes.

True to the school's environmental mission, the 60 children who worked on the project disassembled the classroom's 24 desks and rebuilt them into chairs with arms and padded seats.

They reused the desks' plastic cubbies as storage shelves.

“Even outside the classroom, there was a buzz,” said Mick McNutt, adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon and a project architect at Garfield-based EDGE Studio. “Students were running up to their family members, to students who weren't in the class, to say, ‘Look at what we did.'”

The project gave the Carnegie Mellon students an opportunity to do an interior design that they could build in a workshop and then see in use rather than modeling a building, McNutt said.

By working with each other and the architecture students, the seventh-graders practiced problem solving and demonstrated ways to apply each student's expertise, King said.

They used YouTube tutorials and consulted peers to learn how to illustrate rough designs in Google's SketchUp 3-D modeling program.

“They feel empowered because they'd started in the first month of school, trying to build a culture of learning,” King said. “Now, they can really see themselves in this classroom.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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