The commons/dining area, one of the centerpieces of the renovated Martinsville High School, is much more than a place to hang out or eat.
It also is a place for students to collaborate on projects; a place for clubs and groups to meet (the school board has met there); a place for presentations and screenings; a place for military recruiters to meet students; and other things.
“We planned the design to have flexible spaces for collaborative work,” Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Pam Heath said recently.
Heath and Angilee Downing, assistant superintendent of instruction, recently gave a tour of the school, pointing out several places that illustrate how its $9.3 million renovation is helping student learning.
In the campus-like commons and dining area, Heath said, furniture can be moved. The furniture includes modular sofas, comfortable chairs with desktops and more traditional tables that double for eating lunch and for students to work on projects.
The space also has charging stations for students’ portable devices.
Heath and Downing next headed to Heather Tolbut’s Virginia and U.S. history class.
Any class projects “I can’t fit in here, which is quite a lot,” students use the more spacious commons, Tolbut said.
Tolbut’s students were doing background research on people and events in the civil rights movement.
Heath and Downing said MCPS’ focus on project-based learning encourages not what students know but what they do with what they know. That involves critical thinking, collaboration, communication, problem-solving and creativity — things employers have told school officials they need in employees.
The next stop on the tour was Mike Evans’ Video Production 2 class.
Evans said the current class space is about twice as large as before the renovation project. In the former space, which was in a different part of the school, he said, everything was in one room, but now there is a separate control room as well as areas for the set and editing.
Students Nigel Preston, Matt Self and others said they are learning to collaborate with fellow students on projects and obtaining hands-on skills, such learning how to film, edit, do voice-over and how to tell a story. They also said the class is helping improve their communication skills and self-confidence, and giving them perspective about themselves.
At the next stop, Heath and Downing showed the room used by robotics class and team. MHS had no robotics classroom before the renovation project.
“My daughter’s on the team,” Downing said. “Kids are engaged, and it builds interest in math and science.”
Her daughter, Claire, an MHS 10th-grader, said, “I want to do AET because robotics is so much fun.”
AET is the Academy of Engineering and Technology, and it serves students in grades 11 and 12, according to the MCPS website. This program occurs on the New College Institute’s campus, with shared faculty from Virginia State University, NCI and MCPS. This allows MHS students to receive college credit in engineering and technology courses, according to Heath and Downing.
The next stop was Todd Cassell’s Engineering Explorations class. After Cassell discussed ground rules, students broke into groups, brainstorming on how to create, design and build a device to help a wheelchair-bound person or amputee to perform one function.
At one table, students Cody Turner, Terrence Rudd and Antonio Frazier were discussing a device that would allow a wheelchair-bound person to reach high places, such as tall cabinets.
Cassell said two classrooms were converted into one large classroom, which is much more suitable.
Downing described Cassell’s classroom as a makerspace, similar to a fab (or fabrication) lab.
The next stop was Marie Stone’s Introduction to Health and Medical Sciences class, where students were or had been practicing adult cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a mannequin. She also showed an adjoining room with hospital beds where students practice such things as turning positions and dressing changes on mannequins.
Those classroom spaces and the hallway space outside, which students sometimes use to work on projects, together provide much more space than Stone’s classes had before the renovation project, said Stone, instructor and registered nurse.
In addition to their work at MHS, some of Stone’s students are doing job shadowing at a number of locations in the community, she said.
Heath said many school divisions see career and technical education (CTE) as a side or separate issue in education. “We see it as top,” she added.
If someone can’t apply what they have learned, having straight A’s won’t matter, Heath and Downing said.
Aspects of the renovation project tie in with the MCPS STEM Pipeline, a preK-12 initiative focused on developing the skills and interests of students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career pathways.
The MHS renovation included new technology and wireless Internet throughout the building; reroofing the facility; redoing a lot of the infrastructure such as air handling systems; security improvements; reconfiguring space to allow for construction of seven science labs; about 6,000 square feet of new administrative space; remodeled space for STEM and vocational classes; and enclosing some walkways, among other improvements, officials have said.