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Mill Creek students design a winning, futuristic high school

Mill Creek Middle School students, from left, Daniel Andersen, Brooke Roshon, Asia Tanis, Adria Sutliff and Jenna Yee recently captured a state future design competition. The team designed the West Lake Academy, which focuses on preparing students for STEM careers and partners closely with local businesses.  - Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter
Mill Creek Middle School students, from left, Daniel Andersen, Brooke Roshon, Asia Tanis, Adria Sutliff and Jenna Yee recently captured a state future design competition. The team designed the West Lake Academy, which focuses on preparing students for STEM careers and partners closely with local businesses.
— image credit: Ross Coyle/Kent Reporter

A team of Mill Creek Middle School students wasn't expecting to go very far when it started planning a futuristic high school for a major design competition.

But after the group presented their innovative ideas on April 4 to a jury of architects and engineers, they walked out of the competition as state champions.

Mill Creek's School of the Future Club will represent Washington at the Council of Educational Facilities Planning International (CEFPI) Pacific Northwest Regional Competition on Wednesday in Kent. The winner earns a berth in the international competition this fall.

The team's winning entry, the West Lake Academy, is a school focused on preparing students for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers and partners closely with local businesses.

Daniel Andersen, Asia Tanis, Brooke Roshon, Jenna Yee and Adria Sutliff worked with Sierra Martin Architects Thomas Wadkins and Jason Romine on the design of the futuristic school.

Mill Creek students were not sure if they presented a strong enough entry.

"We thought we would be doomed at state," Andersen said.

But Tanis said the presentation succeeded largely due to the group's enthusiasm for the project.

"We really were into what we were doing, and we actually cared about this stuff," Tanis said. "We picked stuff that we thought we would enjoy if we went to this school. It was obvious that students had created it."

When designing a new high school, what better way to start then to go straight to the source?

That's what CEFPI seeks to do by creating a contest for seventh- and eighth-graders to design the high school of the future. The contest offers an opportunity to illustrate the kind of creativity that students bring to the planning and design process. The competition highlights the importance of well-planned, high-performance, healthy, safe and sustainable schools that foster student achievement and enhance community vitality.

Dana Piehl, Mill Creek teacher and team advisor, enjoyed watching the group come together and develop the school. But she admits it was difficult at times to stay as hands-off as possible, only facilitating logistics for the students.

While the students have to use existing or developing technology in their designs, the sky's the limit in terms of funding. Students can place the school anywhere as long as it's on a tangible parcel of land.

At first, the five-person team worried that it wasn't using its time wisely, having only eight weeks to complete its project from the beginning of February to the end of March. They settled on an 8-12 grade academy centered on STEM subjects. A large hub connects to a different technical field, such as computers, medicine or engineering. While eighth-graders would take a smattering of classes from every wing, as they advanced in grades they would dedicate more time to a specific field.

"We wanted the 12th graders to be ready to get into a job right out of high school," said Tanis, an outgoing member of the team who was responsible for creating the academy's blueprints and maps.

The focus on STEM subjects changed the students' ideas of how the school would operate. Instead of just putting a math class in the medical wing, the students had to think about what kinds of math courses a pharmaceutical technician would use and put the appropriate courses into the classroom.

"They would learn the math that was specific to what they wanted to do," Tanis said. "We knew it was still important to learn the basics, but we wanted them to be more applicable to what they wanted to do."

As the students adjusted and consulted with architects, their design changed again in more physical ways.

"At first our design was very tall and it branched out, but the architects told us that because we were in an earthquake zone and tsunamis and stuff, we had to make it so we could survive that," Sutliff said. "So we ended up making it lower to the ground so it wouldn't fall over."

Designing the building also forced the team to utilize skills that they had learned in previous years, such as math or art.

"There was a lot more math than we expected," Tanis said. "We actually went and thanked our math teacher afterward. It was good to see that we do use it in real life because sometimes we can get bored with what we're doing in math. But we were utilizing all the skills that we had learned this year and previous years."

But the lessons the team learned went beyond practical applications of how it could apply skills. They learned what it was like to work in a creative endeavor as a team.

"When we were all together there was lots of joking and goofing off," Tanis said. "We actually got a lot done, even though we felt like we weren't getting work done at all. It didn't feel like 'work.'"

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