The UK’s first biophilic school heralds the sustainable future of learning

As COP28 draws to a close, Sumeet Bhatia reveals Cisco’s work with DfE to create a school to model the future of the education estate

As COP28 draws to a close, Sumeet Bhatia reveals Cisco’s work with DfE to create a school to model the future of the education estate

14 Dec 2023, 5:00

The concept of biophilic design in education isn’t just a novel idea; it’s a transformative shift in how we imagine learning spaces. The government and industry have continually signalled the urgency for the UK to uplevel its skills and productivity. In achieving this, educational innovation is paramount, and St Mary’s Catholic Voluntary Academy in Derby stands at the forefront.

Thanks to a strategic collaboration with Cisco, the Department of Education (DfE) and school leaders, St Mary’s is blending nature with cutting-edge technology to not only deliver a new ultra-low-carbon building standard for schools, but to help bolster their digital skills curriculum. This isn’t just about building schools; it’s about renewing the essence of our educational environments.

The rebirth of St Mary’s

Following a devastating arson attack in 2020, St Mary’s has undergone a remarkable transformation. Focused on meeting the DfE’s GenZero ultra-low carbon standard, the school’s rebuilding journey is a symbol of resilience and forward thinking, going beyond restoration to a radical rethinking of the school’s purpose, powered by the collective ingenuity of educators, technologists, and policymakers.

At the heart of this transformation is technology. As part of its country digital acceleration (CDA) programme, Cisco’s technologies form the backbone of this biophilic environment, ensuring that technology complements rather than competes with nature.

Education enabled by technology

To realise its biophilic and educational goals, St Mary’s brand-new school site incorporates a whole host of innovative technologies. Sensors continuously monitor air quality, temperature, and humidity throughout the school, enabling teachers to nurture an optimal learning atmosphere.

With these indicators in check, it’s anticipated that we’ll see healthier, more attentive and higher-performing pupils as their classrooms are adapted to their unique needs. Moreover, data collected serves as a practical tool for introducing real-life maths and data skills into the curriculum, making learning more interactive and relevant​​.

Understanding that learning takes place beyond the classroom walls, the school also uses habitat cameras for outdoor learning spaces, creating a unique educational experience. These are vital in recording nature events and providing live viewing opportunities for students, thus deepening their connection with the natural world​​.

Practically, the entire school, from classrooms to outdoor spaces, is equipped with high-speed wireless internet. This ensures that teachers and students can access digital learning resources and collaborate online, no matter where they are on site. Moreover, using advanced cloud-based technology saves on the physical space and energy needed to have large servers on site, burnishing the campus’ environmental credentials.

Carbon emissions are further managed through energy-saving technologies like smart lighting, which automatically turns off when rooms are not in use. Meanwhile, solar panels on the school’s roof generate renewable energy, powering devices and helping to cut down electricity costs. With always-on internet access and cloud-based resources, students can engage in interactive and collaborative learning experience, including virtual field trips and real-time work on projects with fellow classmates.

An eco-conscious ethos

From supporting operations to enriching the curriculum, these solutions foster an atmosphere where digital fluency meets ecological awareness. This delicate balance elevates the educational experience, empowering students and staff with a dynamic, interactive learning environment and fostering a curriculum that is as innovative as it is intuitive.

Ultimately, this innovation in marrying biophilic design with advanced technology paves the way for enhanced educational outcomes. Educators are empowered to deliver a data-driven approach to teaching and learning, while also immersing students in an environment that fosters wellbeing and productivity. This symbiotic relationship between nature, technology and education will serve as a blueprint for replication in education ecosystems nationwide.

St Mary’s is more than a single achievement in educational design; it represents a critical juncture in the evolution of learning environments. This innovative design approach not only enriches the learning experience but also embeds respect for sustainability as second-nature for the students passing through the school.

As we look towards the future, schools like St Mary’s not only inspire but also challenge us to rethink the role of technology in education, ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of educational innovation.

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  1. Sharon Brown

    So they have consistent Internet and working air conditioning. Otherwise nothing in there that steers away from what every other school with WiFi, Internet and enough iPads or laptops do. Not really groundbreaking, but definitely nice to have.

  2. The building design appears superb. However, There are now children on roll who have to catch the bus to get there. When previously they could walk.
    I’m not sure how that fits in with the design and relocation considerations.

  3. This is an encouraging article highlighting the vision that all schools should be looking forward to. BGR Education are already building future proofed sustainable classrooms
    incorporating the very best in tech and high quality acoustics and have many happy pupils and satisfied teachers to prove it.