Last year the Blue Valley School District of Overland Park, Kansas, had a problem: Its new Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) building wouldn’t be finished for a year and a half. While the district, high school students, and teachers didn’t want to delay the launch of the new program, they didn’t have the money required to lease, remodel, and equip a temporary space. “So, we came up with the idea of companies gifting us the funds we needed to rent,” says CAPS executive director Donna Deeds.

DLR Group transformed one of its conference rooms into a high school lab
DLR Group transformed one of its conference rooms into a high school lab
Photos © Alistair Tutton
DLR Group transformed one of its conference rooms into a high school lab.

When the district met at the DLR Group’s offices in Overland Park, the architecture firm’s senior principal Jim French, AIA, had a better idea. “I said, ‘Forget cash.’ How about having them move a class right into this conference room?’ And, that’s how a high school electronics lab ended up in our offices.” During the 2009-10 school year, a total of 32 students have taken half-day classes there, learning how to design and build their own analog and digital circuits.

The CAPS program is unique, explains Deeds. After passing a rigorous application and screening process, students may enroll in an intensive educational program in engineering, business, biosciences, or human services that gives them real-world experience. “Half the day our students are in a profession,” says Deeds. “They dress like professionals, and work on real-world projects given to us by our business partners. They have a business mentor that is attached to them, and who provides them with input. They spend the other half of their day at their home high school.”

The special needs of an electronics lab meant that simply swapping desks for a conference room table would not do. DLR redesigned and upgraded the space, outfitting it with an independent heating and cooling system. Its electrical systems were improved so that laptops, instruments, and soldering irons could be safely used. Wi-fi was installed so students could download study materials. Costs were split between DLR and the Blue Valley Education Foundation.

The program has had unexpected benefits for both the students and the firm. “One of them,” Deeds says, “is that students were propelled out of high school and into a professional setting. Their behaviors and attitudes and skills went way beyond high school, because they were in that environment. Another is that there was ready access to these experts who could easily come in and teach lessons beside a high school instructor. They coached them on their projects. That was unbelievably valuable.”

French adds, “Hosting a CAPS living lab in our office has given us a hands-on opportunity to observe, and to help us understand, how teachers and kids use space while they are learning.” And, because DLR has a nationwide K-12 practice, “we are applying that knowledge through design to benefit local communities across the country.”

The DLR Group was not the only company to have an onsite classroom during the last school year. According to Deeds, six other businesses provided space. “What’s incredible is that one of the businesses will maintain that site for another year. They don’t want us to leave.”