Two connected schools in Casper, Wyoming, let students learn the real-life skills the business world needs

By Amy Goetzman

The generation of young people we’re now educating will live and work in a dramatically changed world. So why are we still using 20th-century philosophies, classrooms, and materials to teach them? Colleges and business leaders already say too many students arrive unprepared. While traditional education may not be fully obsolete, it could certainly use a major redesign.

The combined Pathways Innovation Center and Roosevelt High School, by Cuningham Group Architecture, offers an architectural solution to many of the issues facing 21st-century educators. The high schools in Casper, Wyoming, have moved into a new facility that lets students tailor their education to their skills and future career goals. On one side of the building, Roosevelt High School provides its students with flexible, modern spaces for traditional academic studies. On the other, 11th- and 12th-grade Pathways Innovation Center students pursue vocational studies in art, engineering, design and fabrication, construction, culinary arts, and nursing. The schools are connected by shared spaces and strengths, and the surrounding community is invited to play an active role in shaping its future citizens and employees.

“The traditional high school model only engages a small percentage of learners. The primary focus on book learning and material memorization, while important, lacks cognitive learning,” says Cuningham Group’s Scott Krenner, AIA. “At Pathways, kids are doing things in a hands-on environment where application, problem-solving, and critical thinking come into play. That’s how we learn best.”

Pathways accomplishes this by placing its aspirations front and center. The Fabrication Hall, a soaring, 5,000-square-foot central work area that Krenner calls a “maker space on steroids,” can accommodate full-size, real-world projects. When the students are done building things like a prefab house, mobile farmers market, or solar-powered airplane, they roll up the 16-foot-high, custom-fabricated glass doors to deliver their work to the public. High-tech labs surround the hall, emphasizing the connections between disciplines and giving educators versatile, focused teaching spaces away from the hubbub of the main shop.

The building faces the city, visually connecting the two schools to the businesses that may someday employ some of the students. Several local and regional employers partner with the schools by providing support and meaningful projects for the students. One example: Pathways students designed and fabricated a donor wall for the local YMCA. Another, more fleeting experience came during the August 2017 solar eclipse, when NASA and the Exploratorium in San Francisco turned the schools into an observatory with the help of students and the building’s high-tech infrastructure.

“We had reporters broadcasting across the world in real time as this rare event took place,” says Shawna Trujillo, Roosevelt High School’s principal. “Our students, staff, and community had the opportunity to take part as participants, scientists, and reporters. This was an unforgettable and transformational experience.”

The architects looked at hundreds of schools for design inspiration for Pathways.  Ultimately, they found the right solution in the business world, at Boeing’s aerospace facility in Everett, Washington. “In most schools, the shop areas are isolated at the back of the school, limiting students’ exposure to them. We wanted to showcase them, like they do at Boeing, where the spaces are designed for large-scale work,” says Krenner. “In education, we do so much based on test scores, but business doesn’t care about that. Employers are looking for critical-thinking and collaboration skills. We need to model our schools on what industry is looking for, and design innovative spaces that facilitate that work and connect to the way kids learn.”

While industry observers applaud the hands-on learning, Pathways and Roosevelt teachers and administrators give high marks to the schools’ built-in flexibility and adaptability: Many classroom walls are moveable, for example, and wide “learning stairs” function both as staircases and as seating for performances and presentations. Fiber-optic communication systems are ready for the technology of the future. Books are distributed throughout the school instead of siloed in a library, while a coffee shop run by students provides valuable business skills as well as a gathering and study space.

On the Roosevelt side, the school’s core commitment to health and wellness is evident indoors and out. The 38-acre campus features a performing-arts amphitheater and walking paths with scenic views of the surrounding plains. But that vast landscape can also be enjoyed from inside Roosevelt’s airy array of learning spaces, thanks to expansive glazing throughout the building. All the natural light and openness complement the greater autonomy the students enjoy.

“Every student on our campus has the opportunity to ‘stretch and grow’ in this savvy, professional setting,” says Trujillo. “Students are looking head-on into their futures every day in this building. Teachers teach with students’ futures in mind. We now have tangible resources and opportunities at our fingertips. Our mindset as educators has shifted, and students are benefitting from it. Our students are winning.”

Young people are better prepared for the future when their school looks more like the world and workplace they will soon inhabit. When architects design a school like Pathways, students can even begin to create that world themselves.

Location: Casper, Wyoming
Client: Natrona County School District
Design architect, interior designer, and landscape architect: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
Principal-in-charge: John Pfluger, AIA
Project lead designer: Scott Krenner, AIA
Architect of record: MOA Architecture
Energy modeling: Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
General contractor: Groathouse Construction
Size: 125,316 square feet
Cost: $36,632,500
Completion: April 2016
Photographer: Astula/Raul J. Garcia