Grading our school systems

September is the month that most children—and adults, for that matter—go back to school.


September is the month that most children—and adults, for that matter—go back to school. Some school districts are switching to a year-round school schedule to help students with retention issues; September is just another month of the school year for this portion of the population, but I digress.

This issue is devoted almost entirely to buildings in which we educate people. Most of the U.S. Dept. of Education’s focus is on academics, qualified teachers (and the ability to pay them), and research grants for higher education. Very little information that I can find online focuses on lighting. Or mass notification systems. Or energy efficiency. Or electrical systems.

Because we do not have a qualified teacher in every classroom, many students are being underserved by education. The prospect of coordinating 26 7-year-olds to get them onto the same page to learn something can seem daunting. In turbulent political and social times, seasoned professionals turn to teaching to find meaning in their lives, and there's a wealth of knowledge and experience flowing into classrooms. However, in difficult economic times, like we're facing now, experienced professionals tend to steer clear of teaching because there's not enough money in it. (Many, however, do become adjunct professors for colleges, and some become substitute K-12 teachers to earn extra money.) That’s likely why getting qualified teachers is the No. 1 priority for the Dept. of Education.

Many believe teachers are poorly paid, while other believe teachers have big salaries. The truth is that some states, such as Illinois, pay teachers well, and other states, such as Oregon, which does not have a sales tax, pay teachers poorly. Benefits, however, tend to be really good across the board. The disparities in pay from state to state lead to disparities in quality of education.

While our engineering community cannot impact the disparities in teacher quality, pay, or employment, or ensure students have had breakfast, we can certainly help ensure the safety of both students and teachers. By integrating top-notch fire and life safety systems in schools and—where warranted—mass notification systems, we can ensure that teachers can take immediate and effective action in case of emergencies or threatening situations. 

By lighting our students’ classrooms in the most efficient and highest-quality manner, we can engineer a pleasant place to learn, where eye strain and low productivity aren’t on the class roster.

When we give kids energy-efficient, dynamic places to learn, we can teach them both theory and practice. One of my favorite classes in college, for example, didn’t take place in the classroom full of desks—it took place in a facility where light and sound played a role in the outcome of the experiment.

I encourage both the Dept. of Education and the architecture, engineering, and construction community to spend a little extra time on designing and building the best possible classroom. And I also encourage you to mentor a student—either in a traditional classroom setting, or outside of the normal education environment. Our future could depend on both.

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