From Large Scale to Human Scale: Learning from Neuroscience to Enhance School Experiences for all Users


North Tower - 1st Floor - Garden 1

  • Primary Core Competencies: Design of Educational Facilities
  • AIA CEU: 1.0 LU HSW
  • Secondary Core Competencies: Educational Visioning


In many areas across the US, and especially in dense urban areas along the West Coast, we are seeing the pressure to build schools of a much larger scale than before. Fear of larger schools is appearing among many educators and community members alike. It has become a clear challenge of our times to seek a human scale architectural experience regardless of the overall size of a new building or campus. Of utmost importance is the teaching and learning process to authentically engage students and maximize the opportunities afforded by the environment.

To address this challenge we should use knowledge from other disciplines, notably from the neurosciences, about the way we learn and experience our environment. There is a growing body of research explaining our brain and bodily cognition of our surroundings. It is not our brain only that perceives everything but it is our body that reacts to the space and sends signals to our brain as well. As we treasure the value of a multi-sensory experience, we should renew our awareness of rich spatial organizations. In this day and age we should be more sensitive to the needs of quiet students as well, as they usually represent a more introspective part of the spectrum. We should integrate this knowledge with the most progressive educational philosophies in order to design holistic, engaging learning environments that can be effective for all students.

 As we embark on educational visioning exercises that can set the ground for even more engaging learning outcomes, the challenge of increasing scales demands comprehensive vigor to connect the spatial implications throughout the building with the pedagogical intent of supporting varied learning modes. As key stakeholders discuss their vision for the future of learning in their school, it will be increasingly important to connect the words and notions with design solutions that can help those visions. As we have learned from neuroscience, a physical space is rarely a neutral factor; it can either support or hinder learning. Furthermore, to be successful, we need to achieve an emotional vision among the stakeholders that can be carried through, just as we need to engage a social brain on the students’ part.

This presentation will open the conversation about the learning experiences that prepare students for their futures and the role of space in constructing memory and its retrieval. We will explore the impact of recent knowledge and research on the design of learning experiences and environments, and examine a few projects of various scales that have deliberately dealt with mitigating the large scale towards the human scale solutions, highlighting how active learning maximizes the design intent.

Learning Objectives

OBJ #1  Participants will become aware of ways to address the challenges of urban density, and the importance of the experiential quality of both architecture and learning

OBJ #2  Participants will gain knowledge of innovative learning experiences, the influence of the built environment on our overall learning experiences, and brain-body cognition in reacting to the environment

OBJ #3  Participants will learn about the benefits of the relationship to nature for overall human health and wellness that present challenges and opportunities in learning environments

OBJ #4  Participants will become familiar with the science of learning and the brain’s reaction to its environment, and learn about different spatial strategies for mitigating the increasingly larger scales of new schools

Boris Srdar, FAIA, LEED AP, Design Principal, NAC Architecture

Page Dettmann, PhD, ALEP, Chief Education Evangelist, MeTEOR Education