Union High School showcases tech-education

Completed in July, Evergreen School District’s newest school, Union High has integrated the best of educational technology into the school’s design.

At Union, said Vaughn Lein, Principal of LSW Architects PC, which designed the facility, “instead of learning from technology, the students learn with technology.”

For the kids

Wireless hot spots are available throughout the campus. So, a student can bring a laptop to the gym to record heartbeat rate changes, or to the theater, or anywhere else – they are not limited to a static desktop PC.

Career and Technology Education students interested in producing prototypes of inventions can take advantage of a special kind of 3D laser printer that acts like a CNC milling machine – except that it uses plastic instead of metal. Chris Tschirgi, Evergreen School District’s manager of educational technology, said that the printer allows students to inexpensively experiment with the ideas they draw with CAD/CAM programs.

All students at Union High can use the school’s on-demand video server, where they can search for a video clip on a specific topic such as polynomial equations. The product is called Safari Montage, and Tschirgi called it “pure teaching content.”

For the teachers

Another way Union High uses technology is installing projectors in the ceilings of every classroom, along with a “document camera.”

The camera can take a picture of virtually anything – a chapter outline, or even a rock collection, and project the picture onto a screen at the front of the room. The pictures can also be saved and displayed on the computer screen.

Classrooms also sport a “voice enhancement system” that enables teachers to be heard at the back of the room without straining their voices. Lein said that such a system not only lets the kids at the back of the room learn better, but studies show that teachers using such a system lose less time due to illness.

Synergy leads to recognition  

Tschirgi emphasized that most technologies are implemented across the board at Evergreen schools.

But what is unique about Union High is the synergistic innovation that comes from collaboration between developers, architects, builders and community members. As such, the school won one of the 2007 Community Development Department’s Community Pride Design awards.

At the heart of Union High’s approach to education are “small learning communities.” These smaller communities focus on specific areas of interest for students:  Engineering and Environmental Sciences; International Studies; Visual and Performing Arts; and Leadership and Business. Each learning community accommodates about 400 students, and functions as an independent school. Studies have shown that these smaller, more intimate learning environments result in higher test scores, attendance and graduation rates, and school safety.

“The architecture is beautiful,” said Marian Anderson, community relations manager, Clark County Community Development, but more importantly, she said, “the small learning communities are new and will benefit the students.”

The separate communities share a gym, common area, auditorium and media center.

Lein said because Union’s small learning communities allow the students to stay within a group of students and teachers for a period of two to four years, teachers can learn more about the students and serve them better.

Efficient and effective

Certain aspects of the architecture also create the best possible learning environment, said Lein. For example, studies show that the more natural light in the classroom, the better students learn. In fact, a 1999 study in California found that students exposed to increased natural light scored up to 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students in the same school district. In many Union High classrooms, said Lein, the glass wraps around the corners, creating almost an outdoor feel to the room.  

More natural light also means reduced energy costs in lighting. Other areas where the school has tried to be cost-efficient is in the choice of building materials – lots of easy-to-maintain brick, glass and metal – and in high-tech systems such as HVAC and security.

Reg Martinson, executive director of facilities with the Evergreen School District, said that their security system supported changing access to an entire building or just a portion of it from a remote site using a laptop. In the case of lost access cards and keys, such a flexible system can be critical.

Union’s HVAC system has built-in intelligence that can learn from previous experience. It stores data such as outside temperature and humidity, time the equipment started, and how long it took for the building to come up to optimal temperature – then it uses that data to “learn” when to start up so that the building comes up to temp “just in time,” thereby saving energy costs.

According to Anderson, it’s Union High’s combination of innovative educational philosophy with modern architecture and technology, creating an environment that fosters a better learning experience for students, that earmarked the $62 million project (funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) as one of “those projects that add to our sense of community and our legacy of quality, innovation, design, and sustainability that can be enjoyed now and for generations to come.”


Besides Union High School, five other local projects won Community Pride Design Awards for their “thinking outside the box” and their positive contribution to the community. The Community Pride Design Awards were held on Oct. 26.

Center for Community Health. In a sweeping effort at making quality health care and services easily available, the new 175,000 square-foot facility on Fourth Plain Boulevard near Fort Vancouver Way is home to an array of public and non-profit partners:  Lifeline Connections, Community Services  NW, Veterans Affairs, Clark County Public Health Department, Clark County Dept. of Community Services, and Cowlitz Indian Tribe Health and Human Services; in addition, the Veteran’s Administration hospital is situated nearby.


Southwest Washington Medical Center Firstenburg Tower. Innovative both in its architectural design and in its use of technology, the tower adds form and function to the hospital. A new dedicated Heart and Vascular Center is housed in the tower, featuring five state-of-the-art cardiac labs and two open-heart surgery suites.


Kiwanis Park Renovation. Battle Ground Public Works has entirely rethought the family park theme, offering innovations such as a climbing boulder, water-play feature, and a picnic trellis. The newly renovated park also sports new restrooms, a play structure, basketball courts, paved trails, an informal sports field and a completely redesigned Kiwanis Club building.


Battle Ground Skate Park. Also in Battle Ground, the 25,000-square-foot skate park offers a way to grow Battle Ground’s revenue base as the park continues to grow. Planned improvements include a new community building, a farmers’ market, and the ability to hold large skateboarding competitions.


Bruce and Judith Wood Home. Next to Arnada Park at the end of “H” Street in Vancouver, the house, once run-down and a detriment to the neighborhood, now is a community highlight, with its authentic early 1900s design both inside and out. The Woods won a Community Pride Design Award in 2006 for a similar project.