What’s Space Got to Do With it? How School Environment Influences Learning

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Learning Spaces in Magnet Schools

Outside of three Hartford Magnet Schools

Pictures of the GHAMAS, Hooker School, UHSSE Photos Taken By: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz and Pauline Lake


Visit any school for the first time and you will immediately notice the environment that you enter. Believe it or not, a school’s environment can play an important role in the school’s overall perception and in a student’s academic performance. Therefore, it is important that school space be closely examined. In Hartford, Connecticut there are three high achieving interdistrict magnet schools with Science themes. These schools are the Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker (Hooker School), the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science (GHAMAS), and the University High School of Science and Engineering (UHSSE), which is partnered with the University of Hartford (UHart). Each of these schools manipulates their space to teach Science in vastly different ways. Thus, producing three distinct learning environments: a lecture learning environment, a social learning environment, and a hands-on learning environment.

Data Collection

We visited each of the three schools and were given a tour of GHAMAS and the Hooker School. During our visits, we took photos of empty classrooms, labs, and social spaces. In addition, we researched each school’s website.


Table 1, below, provides a summary of the information we gathered about each of the three schools. The names of each of the three schools are listed on the columns across the top of the table, while categories are listed on the rows along the left side of the table. Each of these findings are explained in greater detail throughout our web-essay. While reading our web-essay, pay particular attention to the findings on the category labeled “Types of Learning Environments.” In addition, take notice of how the other categories listed impact the different type of learning environment produced at each school.

School Descriptions

Each of the schools listed in Table 1 are magnet schools. Magnet schools are interdistrict public schools that are organized around specialized themes, which appeal to students’ interests.  Specifically, in Hartford, CT, magnet schools are a part of the Sheff Movement, a larger reform movement to desegregate public schools. In addition, the magnet schools in Hartford,CT are run by one of two school systems, either the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) or by the Hartford Public School System (HPS). Of the three schools in Table 1, two schools (Hooker School and UHSSE) are run by HPS. The third school, GHAMAS, is run by CREC. Although, the schools are run by different school systems, they are based on one common theme: Science.

The three magnet schools each have a specialized Science theme. GHAMAS and UHSSE both specialize in dual themes: GHAMAS is a Mathematics and Science school and UHSSE is a Science and Engineering school. Hooker School, on the other hand, focuses solely on Environmental Sciences. Another important distinction between the schools is the grade levels that they serve. GHAMAS and UHSSE both serve grades 9-12 while Hooker School serves PreK3-8. With Hooker School serving twice as many grades as the other two schools, it comes as no shock that the estimated total student enrollment at Hooker School is about 600 students, while at GHAMAS and UHSSE the estimated total student enrollment is about 400 students. Yet, another interesting distinction among the schools is their student demographic breakdown. Table 1 includes pie charts that indicate the demographic breakdown of two of the three schools based on data provided by the Smart Choices website. According to this data, the Hooker School and UHSSE are both fairly racially diverse schools. This is most likely due to the fact that they are both magnet schools that are a part of the Sheff Movement.

Age and Location

The Hooker School is housed in the oldest physical structure of the three schools, which was originally built in 1950 and commonly referred to as the Mary Hooker campus. The Hooker School was later renovated to expand its facility in 2009. 1 (Mary Hooker School 2010 Article) In addition, the Hooker school is surrounded by residential housing units and adjacent to the school there is an outdoor classroom teaching facility. On the other hand, GHAMAS was built completely brand new from the the ground up in 1997 as part of a bigger project known as the Learning Corridor. In fact, the decision to build the Learning Corridor was made by Trinity College’s Board of Trustees to commit $5.9 million from the College’s endowment to launch a bold $175 million neighborhood revitalization plan. 2 As a direct result GHAMAS is surrounded by three other magnet schools and located across the street from Trinity College. Similarly, UHSSE was erected from the ground up, in 2004, on the outskirts of the UHart campus. Contrary to GHAMAS, UHSSE is more isolated, and surrounded by woods. To see for yourself, use the live Google map provided below.

Click and drag on the map to move it around. Click “Sat” in the top right corner to see a Satellite view of the areas. Click the + and – to zoom in and out. Or, view Three Hartford Magnet Schools in a larger map. The red push-pin represents UHSSE, while the blue push-pin represents the Hooker School, and the green push-pin represents GHAMAS.

Analysis: Differences in Learning Spaces

Interestingly, all of the previously discussed aspects are factors that influence how learning spaces are created and utilized in each of the schools. GHAMAS, Hooker School, and UHSSE contain learning spaces that can be categorized into three types of learning environments: lecture, social, and hands-on. All three schools contain examples of each type of learning environment. However, the physical space provided by these specific schools limits the presence of certain learning environments. Therefore, each school exhibits one of the three learning environments more than the other two.

Lecture Learning Environment:

Examples of lecture learning environments. Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

A lecture learning environment consists of students taking notes while watching and listening to their teacher explain subject material. Most lecture learning environments include desks and/or tables that are arranged so that the students sit facing the front of the classroom. This setup encourages students to stay focused on where the teacher stands to give their talk, or lecture, on a particular topic. Generally, teachers stand at the front of the classroom near some form of a board. Because of this, we believe that interactive learning is limited in a lecture learning environment.

According to Marrais (1998), there are two types of activities that take place in learning spaces and the type of activity depends on how the space is framed. Marrais classifies one type of activity as quiet inside activity. Quiet inside activity takes place in spaces that are designed for students to do academic work with the students usually facing the front of the classroom toward the teacher. 3 Classroom layout ultimately decides what activities can take place in the classroom. Therefore, space influences learning. In the case of lecture learning environments, any learning that happens, happens through quiet inside activity.

In the Hooker School, the existence of lecture learning spaces may be connected to the larger number of students that are enrolled at the school. Having more students and serving more grade levels, Hooker School might have lecture learning for their students because lecturing may be an easier, and faster way, to get information to all of the students. A more logical reason for why Hooker School may provide lecture learning environments for its students is that every school should have some type of lecturing going on to relay knowledge from teacher to students in an organized fashion.

On the other hand, GHAMAS might provide lecture learning environments due to the fact that they have a dual theme in Math and Science. More often than not, upper level Math classes, such as algebra and calculus, are taught using a whiteboard and dry erase markers. Math classrooms are almost always set up in a lecture environment. The lecture environment is particularly important for Math classrooms because Math is taught by a teacher providing examples of Math problems on the board and then the teacher helping students individually. Lecture learning environments provide the space for a teacher to lecture at the front of the classroom. In addition, lecture learning environments often provide seating in rows, which allows teachers to navigate through the classrooms easily and assist students when needed. Thus, lecture learning environments make teaching Math convenient.

Similarly, recall that UHSSE has a dual theme of Science and Engineering. The lecture learning environments are just as important here as they are at GHAMAS. Many of the science classes at UHSSE, such as Engineering and Physics, are Math based. Just like at GHAMAS, teachers at UHSSE need spaces that they can easily navigate through and teach subject material in a lecture format.

Another important factor in the way space is created at UHSSE is their partnership with UHart. UHart is a post-secondary institution, in which lectures are the primary format of relaying information from teacher to students. UHSSE’s partnership with UHart is to help prepare UHSSE students for college. Thus, we believe that UHSSE is the school that prevails in having mostly lecture learning environments throughout the entire school building.

Social Learning Environment:

Examples of social learning spaces Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

Since all schools have some form of lecture learning environments, they must also have some form of social learning environments that allow students to participate in interactive learning and socializing activities. Donovan and Bransford (2005) state that “Every community, including classrooms and schools, operates with a set of norms, a culture—explicit or implicit—that influences interactions among individuals. This culture, in turn, mediates learning.” 4 Thus, in every school there are social service spaces, such as the cafeteria, to help promote a sense of community and interaction among students. In most schools, however, a space devoted to learning while socializing is frowned upon unless it is being used during one particular part of the day for the students to take a break and talk amongst themselves. With that said, each of the three schools contains a cafeteria. But, one shocking discovery in each of the schools was the presence of social learning environments, social spaces that were being used to promote interactive learning.

Picture of UHSSE Cafeteria

The cafeteria at UHSSE Photo taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

At UHSSE, there is a colorful and inviting cafeteria on the first floor. Unlike the other two schools, UHSSE’s cafeteria space occupies the majority of the first floor and is the first space seen when entering the front doors of the building. Having a big social space that is isolated away from the classrooms suggests that UHSSE promotes quiet classroom learning environments and expects loud noise and interaction to stay out of, and away from, the classrooms.

In addition, on each of UHSSE’s two other floors, there is one common area in the middle of the building. The common areas have comfy tables and chairs near the students lockers. We feel that this area encourages socializing while providing a common space that students can gather in to do work.It could also be argued that the Hooker School discourages social learning environments.

Although the Hooker School building has only one floor, the building occupies an entire city block. After its renovation, the cafeteria space was built in the very back of the school. Similar to UHSSE, the cafeteria may be placed in the back of the school to keep noise away from the classroom spaces. However, the Hooker School encourages learning in the cafeteria. This is done through their composting program, in which all of the students are asked to separate their food waste into various colored trash cans. By participating in composting, the students learn the importance of waste and how composting can be used to help the environment. Although the Hooker School may encourage more social interaction than UHSSE, we believe that it does not prevail in containing social environments.

We believe that the third school, GHAMAS, prevails in having the most social environments throughout the school building. On each of its two floors, there are areas outside the teachers’ offices that have tables and chairs arranged into groups. This setup provides students with a space to work together on assignments, as well as, to have immediate access to their teachers. In addition, GHAMAS provides a larger social space at the end of its floors that allow students to gather in a more relaxed setting. This space is where students go in between classes to do work. Overall, GHAMAS’ space is constructed in a way that produces and promotes social learning environments for its students.

Hands-on Learning Environment:

Examples of hands-on learning spaces Photos taken by: Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

A hands-on learning environment is produced as a result of an instructional technique where students play with and manipulate classroom materials to help develop an understanding of the concepts.5  A hands-on learning environment is set up to fully immerse the student into the subject and is great for student-discovery learning. In addition, this type of environment is extremely unique, distinct, and specific in every case, and more so follows a constructivist view on education.

Constructivists firmly believe that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.6 Generally this leads to the encouragement towards students to become active agents in their educational trajectory, and question their true understanding of the concepts being taught. By questioning themselves and their strategies, students in the constructivist classroom ideally become “expert learners.”7 As a matter of fact, constructivism actively sparks a distinctive curiosity about how things work in the world collectively. Under this form of learning, students do not reinvent the wheel, but rather, attempt to understand how it turns, and how it functions through being engaged and applying their existing knowledge and real-world experience.8

In GHAMAS there exist hands-on learning environments primarily in the laboratory space provided in the school. The lab spaces are utilized, by the school, as a tool to teach the core science courses, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and biochemistry. The same type of hands-on learning environment is also present in UHSSE, in the laboratory spaces provided by the school. This type of environment is most beneficial when teaching any science related topics, because it does a great deal in combining both theory and practice in a safe controlled environment. Although a hands-on learning environment is present in both GHAMAS and UHSSE, we believe that it is more prevalent and manifested in the Hooker School.

The eco-pond at the Hooker School Photo Taken by Jorell 'Joey' Diaz

Remember we previously mentioned the Mary Hooker school underwent massive structural changes in 2009. In fact the space was renovated to include a butterfly vivarium, an aquatics laboratory, a greenhouse, and an interactive Science theater. These drastic renovations were essential to progressing the schools vision to reduce the amount of energy used by the school and to help the environment.9  This new state-of-the-art building and campus provides many different ecosystems and labs, which allow students to work side-by-side with a resident marine scientist and an entomologist.10  This school is like no other in Hartford and anyone who walks into their building can clearly see this. As soon as you walk into the school you are greeted by an aquatics laboratory and eco-pond waterfall–holding over six-thousand gallons of water, in aquariums and terrariums.11

The physical space at the Mary Hooker school has been manipulated to incorporate these environmental science specific learning features. Located at the front of the school, behind the eco-pond, is the vivarium– a 1500 foot, two story greenhouse. The vivarium serves as a place where students would experience the forms, colors and smells of a diverse tropical ecosystem.12 The space literally serves to expose the students to real life experiences to better understand the overall concepts being taught. The same goes for the aquatic lab and eco-pond, the space is actively being used to bring Science to life.


All three schools, GHAMAS, Hooker School, and UHSSE, are magnet schools that have created different learning environments for their students. Each school promotes learning Sciences differently depending on how they have shaped their spaces. From our research, we have conclude that overall UHSSE is most successful in providing lecture learning environments, while Hooker School prevails in building a strong hands-on learning environment, and GHAMAS prevails in producing social learning environments. It’s imperative to mention that these three schools are only three examples of how learning can be influenced by the space in which it occurs. Most certainly, all schools organize their learning spaces differently and in actuality manifest learning in different ways.

Further Research Suggestions

Our study, due to time restraints, simply acknowledges, but does not examine, that a school’s overall perception and student performance levels are affected by differences in learning environments. Therefore, further research is needed to determine exactly how the school’s space impacts a school’s perception, as well as, how a school’s space influences student achievement. Another facet of research that can be further developed through our web-essay is what type of students are schools trying to attract by manipulating their space? Essentially asking how do schools’ learning spaces affect who applies to which school?

About the Authors

Jorell 'Joey' Diaz Trinity College '13

Jorell ‘Joey’ Diaz is currently a senior at Trinity College majoring in Educational Studies with a self-developed concentration of Latin@s in Urban Education. He currently holds the community service chair for La Voz Latina (Trinity College’s Latin@ student union) and is an active member of Shondaa (Trinity College’s step team). He is also proud brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated. He aspires to someday work in the medical field in his hometown of the South Bronx. He is also a member of Trinity Posse 7 (New York).





Photo of Pauline Lake

Pauline Lake Trinity College '13

Pauline Lake is currently a senior at Trinity College with a dual major in Computer Science and Educational Studies. She is currently a teacher and front desk worker at Trinity College’s Trinfo.Cafe. Her career goal is to become a Computer Science/technology teacher one day. She is also a member of Trinity Posse 1 (Chicago).




Learn More

We encourage you to read more about each of the schools we visited. Start by clicking the links (in blue) that we have provided to each of the schools’ websites. We also encourage you to refer to our footnotes below to help further your intended research.

  1. Grace Clark, “Hartford Environmental Sciences Magnet at Mary Hooker: Diversity and the Excitement for Learning Come into Focus,” Sheff Movement: Quality Integrated Education for All Children, June 2012, http://www.sheffmovement.org/environmental_sciences.shtml.
  2. “The Learning Corridor Opens for Learning-New Schools, New Hope for Trinity’s Neighbors”, 2000, http://www.trincoll.edu/pub/reporter/w01/Corridor.htm.
  3. Marrais, Kathleen Bennett de, and Margaret LeCompte. The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education. 3rd ed. Longman/Addison Wesley, 1998. 42-52.
  4. Donovan, M. Suzanne, and John D. Bransford, eds. How Students Learn: Science in the Classroom. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005.
  5. “Hands-On Learning | Definition,” Education.com, n.d., http://www.education.com/definition/handson-learning/.
  6. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  7. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  8. “Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning”, n.d., http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html.
  9. “Environmental Science Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.qualityattributes.com/portfolio/environmental-science-magnet-school/.
  10. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.
  11. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.
  12. “Home | Mary Hooker Magnet School”, n.d., http://www.environmentalsciencesmagnet.org/.