Creating “Caves” at High Tech High – Written by Emily Margetta

Visitors to our high school often explore with cameras in hand, taking pictures of the many hanging and posted innovative projects and progressive learning spaces, noting the unconventional layout of the school’s common areas and classrooms as well as the natural light and large windows between rooms.  At the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs’ High Tech High (HTH), built as the first of thirteen HTH project-based learning schools in San Diego County, the design of the space clearly was intended to foster collaboration and inspiration, and does so in dramatic and effective ways.  As the Spring semester project, our team explored stress, learning space design, and human nature and investigated how our school was and wasn’t meeting our needs as students and staff.    

In the Spring semester’s team INNERnet Connection Project, our two classes of sophomores proposed ways to augment our campus at High Tech High in order for students and staff to relax, recharge, and focus. Stanford’s d. school’s Design Thinking Virtual Crash Course showed us the recurring cycle of Empathize-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test as a way to define and address user needs.  Using our own campus as our laboratory, we created surveys, focus groups, and observation tools about stress, anxiety, and the ways students and staff use our campus.  

We researched learning space design, and were particularly influenced by visits and critique from USD Education professor Julie Zoellin Cramer and her associates, as well as their recommendation of David D. Thornburg’s work on Archetypal Learning Spaces.  We learned that our campus has multiple “watering holes”, “sand pits”, “mountain tops”, and “campfires”, but very few actual or virtual “caves”, with the opportunity for students and staff to retreat from the busy world of the classroom and be alone or able to gather in more intimate-scale spaces.

Student groups chose one of several defined needs in our data to address related to coping in a high-stress, high-”noise” society and school, and groups invited the students and staff at school to try on their stations for a full week.  From the data we collected, we found that the key needs were spaces for quiet, privacy, exercise, outdoors, lunch spaces, escape, and refuel.  Some beta tests included: a hammocks zone along the main outdoor corridor, garden seating areas, jumping on trampolines, escaping into watching astronomy videos in the dark, creating a pop-up juice bar, and many more.  In their use and feedback, all student groups created scale models and concept boards and statements are proposals for dream installations at High Tech High.  We shared our findings with school and student leaders in hopes of integrating some of the solutions that holistically address our community’s learning and wellness needs. Looks awesome!!  During our exhibition, staff, students, and families voted on the scale models that best fit their needs when needing to rejuvenate, reconnect, or retreat.  Those results were used by students to present to our director, Brett Peterson, and the Chief Academic Officer, Ben Daley, in order to narrow down which potential installations to go forward with.  Our new director, Kaleb Rashad, has also been involved and very supportive of the project.

 As recipients of the Changemaker Award, we are excited to move forward with two installations that can benefit our community – the design and building of a garden seating area wired with Bluetooth speakers, and an area with opportunities for physical activity (ideally a climbing/bouldering wall or station).  We are thrilled to contribute to the school community in a meaningful, long-lasting way, and to create change that benefits all learners in a holistic way.