06-26-20 | Feature

Immersive Learning in the Landscape of Arizona

Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8 School
by EPS Group

The architectural elements at Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8 School in Marana, Arizona were crafted by EPS Group with bright colors that were introduced within the buildings entrance and carried throughout the flooring, building terraces and shade canopies creating a sense of contrast between the local environment and building.
The Sun dial is made with a 3" diameter steel tube rod. The base is composed of different bands of integral colored concrete with 6" metal numbers that are imbedded with pins and epoxy, powder coated and painted rugged brown. The plaza seat walls surrounding the structure are made of CMU block matching the architecture of the building with the seating being a natural gray cast-in-place concrete.
The play structure, manufactured by BCI Burke Company, was custom designed to appear as a rocket ship, displaying the sciences theme of the school. Directly below the structure, is poured-in-place safety play surfacing. The area surrounding the internal surface is covered with engineered wood fiber material.
The desert landscape surrounds the campus with native colorful plantings such as Saguaros, Ocotillos and the Creosote bushes that bring enhanced color and scents during the monsoon rains in later summer.
The Immersive Learning Environments were designed to reflect the natural environment and the CSTEM program of the school. Eco-gardens complement the agricultural focus as they complete the circle of sowing, growing, cultivating, composting and enriching the soils for future crops. The rainwater chain, cistern, rainwater harvesting swale and permeable paving were all placed together to show students the process of rainwater harvesting and storing for supplemental irrigation of the plants and the environment. The sun dial plaza and the solar and wind gardens, located in the upper terrace learning gardens, were introduced for added CSTEM program learning.
Boulders introduce the entrance of the campus to provide security, seating, and to seamlessly blend the architecture with the natural desert ambiance. The colors found on the building sides are tans and browns to further complement the surrounding native desert.
The custom designed shading hangs over the play structure and swing area. The planet designs are imbedded into the shading complementing the rocket ship play structure and the science and technology components of the CSTEM program at the school.

As the first K-8 CSTEM school in the state of Arizona, Dove Mountain offers an optimal learning environment where students experience rigorous Computer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math academics relevant to real-world challenges. The campus is dedicated to providing a safe, secure and nurturing atmosphere that encourages students to collaborate with their peers and feel open to taking chances with their learning. EPS Group provided landscape architecture and civil engineering services for this new 102,000 sq. ft. combined elementary and middle school facility.

Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8 is located on a 20-acre site within the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains in a fast-growing part of Marana, Arizona - a town just north of Tucson. It has wonderful views of the valley basin below, covered with varied natural vegetation consisting of desert foliage, trees and the state's iconic
saguaro cacti.

The site's positive views and foliage complicated the design of key building aspects and because it is in mountain foothills, the site slopes 56 feet from the northeast-corner to the southwest-corner. Due to the severity of this slope, ADA accessibility requirements from the site boundary to the building entry, as well as throughout the building interior, needed particular attention.
The project architect, Corgan, resolved this by designing the school on two ground floor levels with a 6.5-foot height difference, and the entry level on the first floor. A 60-foot ramp and stairs lead up to the ground floor level 1.5. This circulation band is referred to as the "Arroyo," a nod to the natural drainage feature common throughout this arid region. The design is a site-grading cut and fill exercise, allowing the building to nestle into the terrain in a sweeping motion as it cascades up the slope.

EPS Group designed retaining walls, stairs and ADA accessible ramps to complement the architecture. Together, the built features connect the school to outdoor terraced learning gardens, play areas and recreational spaces - all planned and constructed using sustainable, sensitive practices which protected much of the untouched desert environment surrounding the campus.

Many of the site's natural vegetation, including the saguaro cactus, are protected by the state of Arizona. This required agreements with nonprofit plant salvage companies to come in and tag various plants to either be removed and replanted elsewhere, or moved and transplanted on the school site in areas where they can flourish. To save most of the beautiful foliage, the project design team coordinated with the state, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), the school district, contractor and plant rescue companies.

Salvaged, native and arid desert plants are integral to the site design, along with locally sourced boulders and planned hydroseeding. All seamlessly blend the landscaped areas with the native Sonoran Desert beyond the campus perimeter. Many of the salvaged saguaros, trees and introduced native plantings are interspersed throughout the school grounds - in outdoor learning area planters, at the school's main entry and along the roadway - serving both to enhance the campus aesthetics as well as encourage environmental stewardship among the hundreds of students, faculty, visitors and staff. The team also identified a five-acre area designated to remain in its natural state. The school plans to utilize this space in the future as a nature walk as part of their CSTEM horticultural program.

At Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8, students are challenged and teaching is focused on individual student achievement. The unique educational approach includes Makerspace Learning Areas. Lining the heart of the building, these are hands-on, creative spaces that encourage students to design, experiment and invent. The school's innovative classroom setting - three permanent walls featuring state-of-the art technology, and a fourth operable, foldable partition - allows students and teachers the opportunity to work collaboratively both within their classroom as well as at adjacent flexible learning areas. The campus exterior hosts student learning areas, amphitheater seating with integrated ADA ramps, a tortoise habitat, shade structures, and several play and athletic areas.

Reconnecting children with the natural world is one goal EPS Group's creative teams strongly support. The outdoor Immersive Learning Environment (ILE) is a fairly new concept many campuses have begun to embrace, and Dove Mountain CSTEM K-8 offers several outdoor learning areas for students to engage in real science work within relevant environments. These ILEs are sensory-rich environments where students supplement the lessons taught in textbooks with hands-on experiences. Students are able to witness firsthand the benefits of sun and wind power, rainwater harvesting and the use of desert native plants, and they can then apply concepts learned in the classroom to the desert landscape in which they live.

Students are enthusiastic and curious within a fun, inquiry-based area where learning is aligned with science curriculum. By actively participating within an environment that is highly interactive, students are connected emotionally to the learning experience. This project, and other ILE projects like it around the country, allow students to gain fresh perspectives on science, health, wellness and environmental stewardship concepts in ways that complement their individual learning style.

As seen in LASN magazine, June 2020.


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