In the last decade education in North America has undergone a transformation. This transformation has been centered around the buildings that comprise educational institutions across the continent, from elementary schools to universities. Educational institutions are now just as focused on the design of each space and how it will affect each student as they are on the location and size.
Studies have shown that various components of architectural design can have a positive or negative effect on a child's ability to focus on, absorb, and retain information. Design aspects such as use of color, natural light, orientation of furniture within a space, and whether the space is arranged to include secluded and open areas for students, can all directly affect a student's academic performance. With the increase in research and the clear results indicating how design can positively impact education we have seen a spike in educational construction across North America. Architects are now seen as a critical component in creating a space that will scientifically be conducive to learning. New schools are being built for millions of dollars because people understand that the state of the art design will help students learn and teachers teach.
The fact that we have tapped into how design can positively impact such an important part of a child or young adult's life is fantastic, but we only see the value of design in education for schools we know in North America. When we see a university group raising money to build an elementary school in Ecuador we never ask about the design of the space. Even though those same university students are working in classrooms, cafeterias, libraries, and labs that cost millions of dollars to design and construct we want to make sure that, above all, the school they are working to build in Ecuador only provides the basic necessities, nothing more.
We have scientific proof that the design of an educational space can have a profound effect on a child's ability to learn yet we don't seem to believe that those factors are important enough to include them in humanitarian work. As a designer working in a humanitarian context this is very confusing for me. I am so happy that there are finally a few examples of schools in the developing world that took design into consideration, but unfortunately they are the exception to the rule. If you look at any major organization building schools in every corner of the world it's almost a guarantee that those buildings are made out of some combination of CMU block with stucco walls. It doesn't matter if the school is in South Africa, Cambodia, Panama, or Mongolia, every classroom will be almost exactly the same and this blows my mind. How could the educational needs of students in Panama be the same as the students in Mongolia? In North America we don't build the same schools in Maine as we do in California. The differences in climate alone dictate the need for a vastly different form of construction, but that is never the case. The cultural needs of students also play an important role in figuring out the correct design for a positive learning environment. While this takes center stage in the design of many North American institutions it is systematically ignored in humanitarian education work.
Using design to solve a problem is what Design Cause does, and education is a problem for much of the globe. Lack of access to schools and educational spaces that aren't conducive to learning is one of the major issues our globe faces today, and Design Cause wants to change that. Building the same concrete block classroom in every corner of the world is ignoring the cultural and climatic realities of each location and not giving viable solution to the problem. When a classroom isn't big enough for the number of students and the inside temperature is 120 degrees F the design didn't solve the problem of helping children receive an education. If more philanthropic organizations used infrastructure and design as a method to solve some of their problems they might find that they are much more successful in finding viable solutions.