An Invitation to Explore

Cathy Bellem, AIA and Jenna Michieli, AIA

September 15, 2018


How the Innovation Center is leading us toward a new [innovative] approach for K-12 education

Man, I wish I had something like this when I was in school. Walking through robotics labs, tech labs, media labs, and rooms full of comfortable, flexible, furniture on wheels–we are jealous. Our own educational experience, founded on the efforts of past generations to industrialize and communalize the educational process, missed something. That “something” is here, in a place designed to respond to the way we work and learn, designed to inspire curiosity, collaboration, and exploration.

For the St. Vrain school district, this place has been more than a decade in the making, beginning with a commitment in 2006 to build a technologically-trained workforce by focusing on STEM education. The St. Vrain community and the District doubled-down on their commitment by passing the 2016 Bond to fund a new place, a building open to all the students in the District–with the pure mission of building and sustaining Innovation in Education. Today, that place has landed.

STEM is not something relegated to college campuses or even high schools anymore. STEM at St. Vrain starts in preschool with kids building and making, coding and programming from very early ages. It is a new educational format where students drive their own learning experience. Expert staff (instructors) are there to assist and guide in each specialty area housed in this facility; robotics, aeronautics, biomedical engineering, software and technology, media production, and entrepreneurship. The Innovation Center was conceived as a place for students to both explore and culminate an idea-to-reality process, drawing on the STEM literacy that has been ingrained in the district culture.

District educators have committed to support the vision of a technologically trained workforce and have acknowledged that the Place–in addition to the Culture–must support that vision wholly. The Innovation Center targeted environments that went beyond functionality in supporting exploration. The design strategies relied on a researched understanding who we are and how we work together in three primary ways: 1) How space impacts our brain-functioning for specific work; 2) awareness that we are social beings and must develop connection to work effectively together; 3) that initiative and motivation are fueled by choice and access to tools.

Design for the Task

Not all work is equal, and not all spaces support our efforts the same. Emerging brain-science research is informing our understanding on how spaces optimally support different types of work. In the Innovation Center, environments were developed and grouped to allow for specific work to take place. The approach centralized collaboration spaces and surrounded them with places to branch off for focused efforts.

Brainstorming big ideas with a group, benefits from space with high ceilings, and views to broad vistas. That gets your creative juices flowing and allows for “aha” moments. The Commons has 30-foot ceilings, broad vistas to the adjacent fields and sky–and furniture on wheels. Students can establish their own collaboration areas, arranging and re-arranging the workspaces they need to address the work of that moment. Being centrally located, a range of adjacent spaces offer other options.

One other option might be coding–an activity that implicitly draws people towards cave-like spaces, preferably in a corner somewhere where no one will bother you. That’s because our brains perform coding-type activities better in that low-ceiling, task-lit environment. This space can and should be separate from other work areas and –in a high-school environment–must also allow for supervision. At the Innovation Center, “the caves” are tucked under the main stair; low-ceilinged and dark, and strategically sharing the corridor with the Administrative suite, and the Security Resource Officer (SRO) office.

Design for Social Bonding

The work of STEM is based on group projects, preparing kids for the way we work in the “real world”. In the traditional, test-oriented teaching model our system has been based on for decades, students have been asked to work independently, and to rely on only their own efforts in succeeding. For someone new to group work, it can be easier to do something yourself than to negotiate with a group of teen partners who may or may not “work as hard as you do”. Collaboration is a crucial type of work/learning that is central to the vision of the place and relies upon a social skill-set.

The building environment becomes a participant in promoting social skills by creating spaces where kids feel autonomous, grounded and safe, and still connected to the whole. Designed in the spirit of the Prospect-Refuge Theory, the Mezzanine contains couches and booth spaces, bar tops and tabletops, tucked under the volume of the Pitch Room, and overlooking the Commons. It was developed as a place to occupy just off the beaten-path, with opportunity to overlook, to focus, to collaborate, or just to hang out and watch videos –all just next to the main activity of the building.

Teens are often drawn to the fringes of a larger environment where they can linger, observing the larger group, while connecting with smaller groups. These spaces are critical to the social bonding that becomes a framework for collaboration.

Choice + Access = Fuel for Initiative

The biggest complaint heard by students in a traditional classroom today is boredom. School is boring. By the time kids get to high school, they’re bumping, sometimes railing against the boundaries of life. They feel ready to spread wings and explore what life has to offer but are mostly framed by boundaries. The Innovation Center is designed to blur those boundaries, connect spaces, create a terrain to explore and to test what opportunities might exist when kids are given license to set their own limits.

Exploration thrives in an environment that orchestrates gathering/touchdown spots amid a terrain of tools. Spaces transition easily from collaboration zones to execution zones, creating a work flow implication. The Innovation Center is organized around places to come together, and places to go off in pursuit of a specific task. If spaces are visible and accessible and adjacent …when the inspiration strikes, execution will follow. It’s a way that design can support a sense of initiative.

Initiative demands motivation, and sometimes that motivation comes from proximate aspiration. In the Innovation Center, the Pitch Room is perched above the Commons ceremonially to acknowledge the learning-progression at work in the building. Kids’ first experience at the IC typically takes place on the main level with idea exploration and testing in the labs and workshops. Eventually, ideas are built into business concepts that graduate to the Incubator / Entrepreneur Lab for refinement and messaging. Kids quite literally work their way up to the Incubator and culminate their efforts with a product presentation at the Pitch Room–outfitted to reflect the professionalism of the business world.

This place, the process that has been designed for learning, is a bold step forward to provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate that they are ready. High School students leave this place with the skills and the experience to work together, to explore ideas, and to take an idea from concept to business pitch.

By combining a new kind of place to learn with a re-vamped educational culture, the Innovation Center becomes a model for how education can evolve to ignite that most basic human instinct–to explore.

Theories Tested in Design at the SVVSD Innovation Center

Prospect / Refuge Theory
Prospect / Refuge theory was developed by Jay Appleton, a British geographer. He proposes that humans seek out to satisfy an innate desire when reviewing a space–to have opportunity [prospect] while being safe [refuge]. 2

The theory suggests that people tend to gravitate to edge conditions and edge conditions encourage people to sit and survey. On the other hand, expansive spaces discourage occupation but invite surveying of the space.

Room Volume & Creativity
“Vertical room volume... stimulates alternative concepts and types of processing. It’s not absolute height, but the perception of height.” - Joan Meyers-Levy 1

High Ceiling (cathedrals)
High ceiling spaces prime the freedom-related concepts of our brain. The lead to abstract elaboration and users being more relational, find more commonalities and more creativity.

Low Ceiling (chapels)
Low ceiling spaces prime the confinement related concepts in our brains. They promote item specific elaboration, and users tend to find more differences and lead towards more refinement.

Color Theory
“Empirical observations and scientific studies have proven that human-environment-reaction in the architectural environment is to a large percentage based on the sensory perception of color. Human response to color is total–it influences us psychologically and physiologically.” TMD Studio Blog 3

It is instinctive, seeking out an environment that best suits the task at hand. But in a typical learning environment, the ability to seek out that level of specialization can be a challenge–given the conformity to volumes of spaces that is prevalent in most student areas. The new St. Vrain Valley School District Innovation Center has been strategically designed to support a variety of ways to engage ones thoughts, hone focus or broaden perspective, and allow for creative collisions.

The building is composed of a rich ecosystem of spatial types, in an effort to stimulate the creative work already occurring at the school as well as create opportunity for further growth and continued curiosity. The building is a collection of “found” spaces, each of which offers a different experiential quality. This not only provides a stimulating and varied landscape within the building but provides highly functional spaces to capitalize on specific aspects of creative thinking.

One focus in design was to create a variety of room volumes to stimulate types of processing. The main corridor, or “slot canyon” and the commons were designed with ample ceiling heights, with daylight flooding in from above to amplify the perceived volume of these spaces. These shared spaces are meant to facilitate creativity and collaboration by groups of a variety of sizes.

The mezzanine and “study caves” conversely have compressed ceiling heights with warmer and darker finishes to emphasize their low posture. These spaces are meant for more focused and refined work completed by individuals or in small groups.

By locating the different volumes of spaces so proximate to one another, the contrast between the two types is amplified and aims to aide in the decision making process of what space heightens the work at hand.

By locating the different volumes of spaces so proximate to one another, the contrast between the two types is amplified and aims to aide in the decision making process of what space heightens the work at hand.

Another focus in design was to provide opportunities for prospect and refuge. Understanding that people favor edge-conditions, the design bound the large commons space by a variety of smaller spaces at various elevations in the building. The mezzanine space provides opportunities to both survey the majority of the public realm of the building , while being protected. The mezzanine also engages in this sense of refuge because it is visible but not immediately accessible. Although in actuality there are many routes to access the mezzanine, the journey to get there takes a person past many other engaging spaces until they finally reach this space that is nestled between programmatic volumes at the heart of the building. The nature of the two story commons also lends opportunities for prospect. From this ample volume one can see nearly every key learning space in the building; providing a survey point to establish where to head to next.

Finally, color is employed to further elevate a persons experience of the space and their connection to the lessons learned there. In the entry lobby / retail space, wood tones aide in making the space welcoming, while red accents create a sense of excitement. Much of the public realm has a subdued color palette to form a blank canvas for activities that might occur there. The space is a back-drop, not the focus.

Many of the teaching spaces have blue accents to create a sense of positivity and confidence. Anything is possible within these spaces and the faculty at the Innovation Center go above and beyond to ensure each student has the tools and encouragement to strive for their goals. The color blue has also been proven to suppress the production of melatonin, helping people stay alert. So there’ll be no falling asleep in class on our watch.


  1. University of Minnesota. "Ceiling Height Can Affect How A Person Thinks, Feels And Acts." ScienceDaily, 25 April 2007.
  2. Sugihto, Ester. "Prospect - refuge theory." Medium, 16 May 2016.
  3. TMD Studio. "The Perception of Color in Architecture." Medium, 20 August 2017.
  4. Pereira, Matheus. "The Role of Color in Architecture: Visual Effects and Psychological Stimuli." ArchDaily, 09 June 2018.

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