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Hands on Learning, Just Add On-Site

Tactile Learning Tactical Examples for Educational Effectiveness, Participant Health

(PALO ALTO, California, October 2022) – The advance of hands-on learning facilities beginning in the mid/late 2000’s initiated a successful trend, and MKThink has been at the innovative forefront of these developments. Reviewing and considering these precedents could provide a means to accelerate the reversal of learning loss and social deficiencies caused by the pandemic years.



As recently as the mid-2000s, hands-on and collaborative learning became a priority pedagogy in leading graduate, undergraduate, and, eventually, K-12 schools. The motivation was to support effective learning through direct engagement with external stimuli, to engage the mind through place-based sensory experience and skills, and to gain problem-solving skills through improved social skills gained through collaboration and teamwork.

This progressive intention made its way to public schools and even corporate practices. It was successful through many measures, including innovation, economic growth, corporate teamwork/effectiveness, etc.

Despite being established as a dominating approach in education, the adoption and practice of hands-on learning eventually stopped with the forced isolation of early COVID-19 and continued quarantines throughout the pandemic. As physical learning was impossible, academic and social interaction switched to Web 2.0 technology like Zoom.

“Zoom learning” was a successful band aid fix to the issue of non-in-person education; however, it impacted other cultural strength measures that humans need to thrive: community and socialization. Some evidence of the isolated learning we’ve seen are negative impacts on mental health impacts, social development, and overall education. As we return to an almost fully recovered in-person way of society, we are slowly returning to normalcy.


Schools and other institutions have the tools to help reverse these negative impacts through active connection of collaborative and hands-on educational programs situated in human-centric, interactive, sensory rich environments

By celebrating these programs and instilling them as a primary education pillar in schools, we may see an increase in learning engagement, the effectiveness of knowledge gain, critical training, and other workplace skills, as well as aiding in social development.


Educational programs like STEM, STEAM, “Learn Dirty,” and the COVID-inspired use of outdoor learning have revealed the benefits and possibilities of physical learning and outdoor classrooms. The effectiveness of these principles may provide a solid basis for designing, programming and operating the means of educational and social advancement.

Stanford University pioneered the academic standard in outdoor learning by creating the d.School program as an extension of their School of Engineering. MKThink provided the professional and creative leadership to bring the educator vision to life through the physical campus. Here is how the project came to life.

Other projects quickly followed, providing a trove of precedents across the educational spectrum. d.SCHOOL LEARNING

Stanford University

School of Engineering

Programing and Interior Architecture by MKThink

Fall 2008

Established by a group of pioneering educators, the objective was to create a place for advanced learning that furthered collaborative and hands-on learning to complement engineering in and at a leading graduate school program.


Assigned a historic railway shed just outside the University’s iconic palm court, the d.School leadership sought to create an unprecedented learning environment for its unprecedented curriculum. The program’s academic core integrated mechanical engineering with human-centric design to learn about and solve technologically advanced systems and product design.

MKThink repurposed the conventional architecture tools to provide an open, flexible place of education supported by widely available tools and technology. The resultant design approach needed to derive from, rather than dominate, the dynamic educational programs that varied in modes of use, teaching styles, equipment needs, and size of gatherings that is the d.School’s strength. Specifically, the design principles became:

  • Places that prioritize collaborative learning throughout the facilities

  • Support interdisciplinary learning and modes of use

  • Provide ubiquitous yet discrete access to advanced tools and technologies

  • Technologies to not distract from the interactive and collaborative focus

  • Avoid defined, bounded rooms in favor of large, flowing, flexible, multi-sensory, and purpose-places

  • Create a physical environment that prioritizes daylighting and fresh air

  • Get fixed architecture out of the way

The impacts of the space are most apparent in some key measures comparing Stanford University Design Standards and d.School’s Adopted Design:

  1. Number of classrooms / students

  2. Average size of classroom

  3. Hours in use

  4. Fixed offices to faculty ratio

Visual Examples:

  • Dynamic room definition systems

  • Blended functional spaces: Multi-purpose community “Lab”

  • Environmental stimulus

Other projects quickly followed, providing a trove of precedents across the educational spectrum.


Designed by MKThink

The success of the d.School pedagogy had an immediate positive influence on the leading schools in the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area. This impact translated into various projects that reflected similar priorities for collaborative and hands-on learning places. Each project matched a school's intentions and needs while maintaining similar ideals and age-appropriate benefits to the d.School.

Those projects in review:

MKThink developed a new academic core by renovating the dense academic buildings in the complex and crowded Jackson Street residential block. This new structure pivots from permanent partitions to a flex academic common (multiple uses per room), doubling the count and size of science labs and linking them with flexible math and engineering classrooms.

Crane Country Day School New Quad and STEAM Center

MKThink reworked a prior plan for a new academic quad that improved the connection between indoor learning and a unique outdoor campus. The key relationship is a STEAM suite that includes a flexible, hands-on lab surrounded by a series of special equipment labs and outdoor shop terraces. Large-scale doors enable the central lab to connect via one of these shop terraces to the adjacent theater stage and support on-site set fabrication.

As a field-based school, Hillbrook did not need to adjust its curriculum to develop hands-on and collaborative learning practices. What they did need was to structure its facilities to support these practices, integrating advanced technologies, tools, and safety measures.

University High School “U” Lab.


The COVID pandemic put an enormous strain on the educational community. Still, responding to exceptional school leaders and teachers, MKThink focused on assisting schools in pop-up safe and effective outdoor classrooms. These efforts have created tremendous opportunities to expand our collective knowledge of the potential for outdoor and transitional spaces to deepen on-campus, sensory-rich learning environments. My colleague Marijke Smit has written about this as well (here).

About MKThink

MKThink creates intelligent places to improve the quality of life. We integrate innovation, strategy, and architecture to achieve this goal. Our value comes through helping our clients Build Less while Solving More by evaluating, renovating, and reusing existing built environments to achieve future-forward solutions that support community strength, health places, learning outcomes, and systems optimization. We focus on places that experience Edge Conditions to help solve exposed, critical challenges sensitively. Founded by professional service veterans Mark Miller, Steve Kelley, and Nate Goore in 2000, MKThink practices from the Pacific Edge of San Francisco and the Oceanic Edge of Oahu. We are increasing our exploration to the Atlantic Edge from the Downeast coast of Maine. Learn more at

Learn more about MKThink’s presentation of Ocean Plant here and MKThink’s innovation of the 4Daptive Spatial Intelligence Platform here.


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