Round about 3:30 in the afternoon, the little voices sounded inside the front door like a giggling stream.
Not that the two dozen Catholic school girls were too loud.
Nor had the posh architectural firm and its busy grown-up hosts been too quiet.
But the change in the air, as the children bubbled upstairs under the day-lit atrium to their third-floor loft space, said undeniably that their “anti-classroom” was back in session.
Where better to spark in the girls the mind-freeing ways of “design thinking” than here?
Just look at how the girls from Kansas City’s Visitation School let loose on the day’s work, said Rockhurst University’s Mandi Sonnenberg, an assistant professor of education.
No waiting for a teacher’s demonstration.
No template or recipe.
This is the way designers think and work — just as at Gould Evans, the Westport architectural firm that joined Rockhurst in creating the unconventional classroom they call STEAM Studio.
“It’s open-ended and inspiring,” said David Reid, a principal architect at Gould Evans. The aura of the design workspace “creates a culture (Sonnenberg) is trying to instill.”
The collaboration began earlier this school year as Rockhurst University enlisted after-school groups to pilot the program, beginning with students bused from Visitation and St. Ann’s Catholic schools.
On this day — but not always — it’s purposefully all girls. And that plays into another mission of getting more girls into academic disciplines too often dominated by boys.
The name, STEAM, is an acronym that identifies the target subjects, well-known now to the girls.
They shout them back when Sonnenberg calls out each letter.
“Science!” “Technology!” “Engineering!” “Art!” “Math!”
Visitation third-graders Mae Dingley, 9, and Ellie McManamy, 8, can see themselves as architects.
They were peering over the railing of their classroom loft, looking down on the architecture firm’s modern workspaces, its flood of daylight, the funky halide pendant light fixtures suspended below.
“You can tell it’s an architecture studio,” Ellie said.
“Really cool,” Mae said. “A lot of complicated things. A lifetime supply of pencils.”
This is their second visit to the Gould Evans/Rockhurst “classroom,” but they’re getting the idea of it.
The day’s mission is loosely defined. They’ve been introduced to the concept of geometric art and the idea of shapes, and they’ve done some shape drawing in their bound composition books.
Now they’ve picked out a swatch of fabric from the firm’s collection of samples, white paper, scissors and glue. Other supplies are also always available, for whatever strikes their imagination.
They like these projects for the same reason they like the idea of becoming architects.
“I like to visualize what something can look like,” Mae said.
Analysts in the science, technology, engineering and math fields have long warned that the U.S. will be demanding more and more creative thinkers. The drive to inspire girls comes with particular concern.
The Million Women Mentors movement locally and nationwide notes that only 26 percent of the workers in STEM fields are female.
And although more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates are women, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women.
The education world and industry are also increasingly looking for ways to prepare students for a rapidly changing economy that will prize innovation and creative thinking.
Sonnenberg had been looking for different ways to create what she calls those “anti-classroom” spaces to reach pupils like these and to get her Rockhurst education students thinking in more nontraditional ways.
“Too many teachers approach instruction as a recipe rather than as exploratory,” she said.
To inspire design thinking, she said, means getting students “to stop and think, ‘What’s the challenge?’ ‘How’s my idea going to be different than what’s already out there?’”
Gould Evans has been the architecture firm for several Rockhurst projects, and that work brought Sonnenberg’s and Reid’s paths together.
Sonnenberg wanted unusual creative spaces for learning, and Reid liked the idea of housing a living classroom in his firm’s loft.
For an architecture firm that seeks a lot of work designing education spaces, it made sense to help in the programming and see different ways children learn.
In other words, the architects love the extra noise upstairs, Reid said.
“It’s a reminder of what we’re doing.”
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