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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 very successful trend. MKThink has been at the innovative forefront of these developments. A review and consideration of these precedents could provide forward means to accelerate the reversal of learning loss and social deficiencies caused by the pandemic years.


BACKGROUND Starting as recently as the mid-2000’s, 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 stimulus, 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 (innovation, economic growth, corporate teamwork/effectiveness, etc.)

Until it stopped … :

… slowly at first, with the forced isolation of early Covid in 2020, but established as a dominating approach to education (and other) life that educational practices currently. Supporting the ability to initiate and continue the social and physical isolations of the Pandemic response was the rise of successful and ubiquitous Web 2.0 technology.

The health benefits were initially successful. But the results on other culture strength measures were negatively impactful and remain so today:

Negative mental health impacts were beyond recent precedents (ref.) and remain so. Negative educational growth impacts were considerable.

Both are experiencing slow returns to normalcy let alone advancement.


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

Social deficiencies, learning engagement, effectiveness of knowledge gain and receiving critical training and skills recognized by workplace markets, may all benefit from the return of education to physical site offerings, and possibly celebration of hands-on and collaborative learning as a primary education pillar.

Fortunately, recent precedents exist through a range of STEM, STEAM and “Learn Dirty” education programs and their associated facilities. Additionally, the recent Covid use of outdoor learning, including the use of outdoor classrooms revealed further benefits of physical learning. Consideration of these principles and their realized effectiveness may provide a strong basis to design, program, and operate the means for educational and social advancement.

Stanford University pioneered the academic standard in the creation of the d.School program as an extension of their School of Engineering. MKThink provided the professional and creative leadership to realize the educators’ vision through the physical campus.

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 as a compliment to engineering in/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 yetdiscrete 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 prioritized 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. # of classrooms / students

2. Ave 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


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. The programmatic influence translated into a range of projects that reflected similar priority for collaborative and hands-on learning places. Each had its unique intentions and needs reflecting the unique priorities and style of each school, but they shared similar ideals, and age appropriate benefits as at the d.School.

Those projects in review:

Town School for Boys STEM complex

In renovating these dense academic buildings in the middle of a complex residential block, MKThink developed a new academic core that demises permanent partitions to instead pivot around a flex academic common, 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 to better connect indoor learning with 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 as well as outdoor shop terraces. Large scale doors enable the central lab to connect via one of these shop terraces to the adjacent theater stage to also support on-site set fabrication.

Hillbrook School - Natural Nexus

Consistently committed since its origins as a field-based school, Hillbrook did not need to adjust its pedagogy to develop hands on and collaborative learning practices. What they did need was to organize and enrich its facilities to support these practices integrating advanced technologies, tools, and safety measures.

University High School “U” Lab.

The students tell the story best.


The Covid pandemic put an enormous strain on the educational community, but responding to amazing school leaders and teachers, MKThink focused on assisting schools 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 Create 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 exploring 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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