In his book Biophilia, American biologist Edward O. Wilson reflected that humans have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” In other words, our brains are hard-wired to seek out and connect with nature. Wilson’s theory, also known as the biophilia hypothesis, makes up the foundation of biophilic design, which is an approach that incorporates natural elements into built spaces to positively impact occupants’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Many studies have been conducted on the effects of biophilic design, and it seems Wilson was right – bringing nature indoors produces a lot of benefits. Results show that built spaces that incorporate biophilic principles can improve cognition, boost mood, reduce stress, and even accelerate physical recovery.
While most biophilic design research has focused on environments such as healthcare, workplace, and hospitality environments, education spaces can also leverage the benefits of nature to benefit students, teachers and staff.
A Tale of Two Classrooms
In 2019, sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green partnered with Craig Gaulden Davis, Morgan State University, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies to see if the benefits of biophilic design demonstrated in other studies could be replicated in the classroom environment.
The team conducted their experiment at Green Street Academy in Baltimore. The school is known for its innovative approaches to learning, which recognize environmental, human, and personal economic sustainability as keys to success. Two middle-school math classes served as the focus of the experiment, with one classroom being redesigned to incorporate several biophilic design elements, and the control classroom receiving no enhancements.
Of the 15 patterns found in biophilic design, the researchers focused on integrating three specific patterns that had been included in previous studies and could be implemented at a low cost. The patterns introduced into the classroom were:
- Visual connection to nature
- A year-round garden planted in front of the classroom windows provided students with views of greenery and wildlife.
- Dynamic and diffuse light
- Translucent shades that automatically adjusted to sunlight gave students access to natural lighting while reducing harsh glare.
- Biomorphic forms and patterns
- The classroom design featured nature-inspired elements, including a wall graphic, grass-patterned carpet, wave-form ceiling tiles, and a tree canopy design imprinted on the shades.
The Measure of Success
The team at Terrapin Bright Green conducted various assessments throughout the semester to evaluate the impact of the biophilic design interventions. Researched collected data from both classrooms and compared results related to stress, perception of the space, and academic performance. In all three areas, students in the biophilic classroom experienced better outcomes.
The experiment measured stress in two ways – perceived (how stressed students felt) and physiological. Students in both classes conducted a stress self-assessment at the beginning and end of the semester. When comparing scores, the biophilic classroom showed a more significant decrease in reported stress than the control group.
To substantiate the self-assessment, a group of students in each class had their heart rate variability (HRV) measured twice a day – at the start and the end of class. HRV is a measurement of the heart’s natural irregularity and is a biomarker for stress. The lower a person’s HRV, the more stress they are under.
Overall, the control classroom had a higher HRV average than the biophilic class during the experiment. However, the purpose of the experiment was to measure stress reduction. Students in the biophilic classroom experienced significantly larger reductions in stress compared to their peers at daily and monthly levels. This would indicate that the environment of the biophilic classroom produced a greater calming effect than the control classroom.
To get a better idea of how students felt about the biophilic space, researchers conducted one-on-one interviews. Students included a range of performance levels to exclude any bias. The general sentiment was positive, with multiple students commenting that the classroom simply felt better.
“Well, it’s comfortable and fun learning in the class; it’s just the work is really hard, but the actual classroom is nice to learn in,” a student named Casey explained.
In addition to the students, the teacher in the biophilic classroom, Ms. Heather Bobbitt, was also asked about her experience in the space. “At first, I was very apprehensive because I’m a traditional teacher,” she explained. “But the changes seem to calm them down, even I feel calmer in the space. Sometimes, I’ll turn off the lights and let the natural light in. Or I’ll sit at a desk, look out the window, and think, ‘Oh, this is peaceful.’ I’ve even had other teachers come in here to calm themselves down.”
Test scores from the previous year’s students were used as the control for evaluating academic performance. Students in both groups started the school year with similar testing averages. While score improvement in the control group plateaued around the middle of the year, the students in the biophilic classroom saw continuous improvement, with an average gain that was 3x higher than the control group.
Designing with Long-Term Success in Mind
When it comes to student success, schools should seize every opportunity for improvement, as the impact of a student’s educational experience far outlasts their time within the classroom. “If students can study better and get better test scores, their long-term economic opportunities are greatly improved,” explains Bill Browning, one of Terrapin’s founders. “Not only that but improving classrooms provides long-term benefits to society as well. Investing in biophilic design in the educational environment is literally an investment in our future.”
To learn more about the impact of biophilic design on students and about the Green Street Academy case study, click here.