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Holly & Smith Architects



Environments for Project Based Learning


by Michael Holly, AIA, NCARB, REFP

It is said that educators today are approaching learning in ways that attend to the needs of the individual and how they learn. Individualized learning is a common understanding amongst those who teach. One way to enhance that approach is to parallel the way that the real-world works. That is the place that Project Based Learning (PBL) comes into play. It is a process that allows students to learn by working as a team on multi-discipline based projects. In this environment, students become the investigators and implementers and the teacher is the coach.

PBL is based on the belief that motivation is education and that education without motivation kills ambition, the primary ingredient for a productive lifestyle. The PBL environment allows participants to gain strength in:

  • Lifelong study skills
  • Obtaining wholistic views
  • Being a problem solver
  • Becoming more readily able to integrate information
  • Being able to adapt to change
  • Working with others


The PBL process can help students identify their passion and at the same time learn to work with others within an active collaborative learning environment. The effort is a project that requires a goal where students must search for a method, acquire skills and knowledge, accept failure and bounce back from it, and keep trying until the goal is achieved. They learn through experiences, more important, they learn how to research and apply knowledge. Success is measured by the complexity of the project and the ability to finish it. This type of education motivates one to learn more about the world we live in while creating a lifetime love to learn. The laws of nature are the motivator and instructor. Positive self-esteem is one of the by-products.

So, what does an environment that attends to this type of education look like? It can be done within a typical classroom, if the space is flexible enough to allow change. The PBL environment should be able to follow the teaching philosophy to its fullest. Think of the space as a combination of spaces that allow team collaboration, maker spaces, presentation platforms, computer layout capability and input and output device space like printers, digital presentation devices and robust access to the internet.


If there is the opportunity to make a new space, an ideal arrangement is to allow classrooms to be centered around a common area that is shared by multiple classes. In that approach, teachers can breakout to their own classrooms for class activities. The larger common space can be shared by all for collaborative work of individual teams, which would include research, project development and project presentations.


To push the concept to the fullest, would be to allow a space for a group of students within a common area that is flexible, like the layout of an open office commercial space with flanked rooms for teaching and group work. The space requirement is best resolved by setting up areas that are flexible in nature. This will enable students to set up teaming environments to address the specific project being executed. The support spaces for the project based learning pod include a team teaching space (the offices for the facilitator(s)), an equipment room for the storage of resources, conference rooms for breakout and classroom teaching areas, and finally, a display space for finished product display to the school community.

In all cases, the environment will, when used to its maximum:

  • Empower students to learn at their own pace
  • Support the need for the instructor to be the coach
  • Assist students in discovering their natural talent(s) and personal interests
  • Allow students to discover their learning personality
  • Create accomplishment and therefore reinforce self through accomplishment and motivation
  • Expose students to team based work

The benefits of project based learning are far reaching. They touch those who are not traditional learners. This object based process by-passes the literary based learning process and gives students the opportunity to learn by executing a planned exploration with a finished product. Project Based Learning requires a plan, which includes ways to acquire needed knowledge and skills. This approach employs all the motor skills that it takes to start and run a business or become a valuable employee, skilled or unskilled.


 Michael Holly is the Founder and Principal Architect at Holly & Smith Architects. He is a member of the AIA Committee on Education and is currently serving as the Governor of the Louisiana Chapter of the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE). Michael is certified as a Recognized Educational Facility Planner (REFP), and he is one of only two carrying that recognition within the State of Louisiana.

More information can be found on this subject by contacting H/S Architects at jennifer@hollyandsmith.com.

Clients who choose Holly & Smith Architects experience a design process informed by open dialogue, confidence and collaboration. As a regional design firm with offices in New Orleans and Hammond, La., we have the depth to handle the most demanding projects while our leadership team remains intimately involved from conception to completion. Contact us to see if we’re the right choice for your project.

Holly & Smith Architects, APAC
208 North Cate St. / Hammond LA 70401 / 985.345.5210
2302 Magazine St. / New Orleans LA 70130 / 504.585.1315


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