WINONA — When Winona State University junior Natalie Benson returns to school later this month, the aspiring kindergarten teacher will find a gleaming new learning environment awaiting her.
Benson, 20, will be among the first students to attend WSU's new Education Village, a $33.2 million project that is expected to change the way teachers are trained for the classroom.
Years in development, the project involved the renovation of three historic buildings to the east of WSU's main campus: Cathedral School, Wabasha Recreation Center and Dr. Donna J. Helbe Hall.
For Benson, it will mean updated facilities, a richer technology environment, and more classroom space, both to learn and collaborate. The buildings include STEM and robotics labs, lab spaces, observation areas, and a cafe and climbing wall.
For WSU education officials, the village will be, if all goes according to plan, a laboratory and an incubator for driving change in teacher training.
"We got this new space, but we don't just want a space that we do the same old stuff in," said Daniel Kirk, WSU's new dean of education, whose previous educational tour included being dean of education at American University of Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.
"The new space can drive new ways of thinking in terms of innovative, needs-driven approaches to teacher education," Kirk said.
An estimated 1,260 undergraduate students and 270 gradate students will begin taking classes in the new classrooms and labs on Aug. 26. A grand opening is set for Sept. 5.
"What Education Village is doing here is creating a whole new ethos, a whole new way of thinking about teacher education," Kirk said.
For WSU students, the experiences at Education Village will be about as different from what they previously experienced at Gildemesiter Hall, where the college of education used to be housed, as "chalk and cheese," Kirk said.
The idea is not only to get WSU students practical classroom experiences as soon as possible, but to make sure that those clinical experiences are effective, Kirk said.
And that will happen once WSU students walk through the door, officials say. They will be immersed in the "noises and routines" of a school, because WSU's Children's Center, a year-round program for children, will be located in Helble Hall.
"What's going to be different is that (students) are going see the problems of practice actually happening in front of (them) on a day-to-day basis," Kirk said.
That means WSU student teachers won't have to wait to see how theory works — or doesn't work — in the classroom.
"It's just so updated that it will help us be prepared for our classrooms on Day One," Benson said.
WSU's College of Education graduates 250 to 300 teacher candidates annually, many of whom come to Rochester to find jobs.
Education Village also uses its spaces to tell the story and evolution of education in the United States.
Tour groups will be able to see that evolution, from a turn-of-a-century, one-room school house to 1960s and '70s chalkboard classrooms to a technically rich modern learning space, changes driven by our understanding of neuroscience.
But the classrooms are not artifacts to be marveled at, they are a functioning part of WSU's education curriculum.
Education Village and the accessories inside the classrooms, from the furniture to learning aids, will emphasize flexibility, so students can learn how to use and manipulate space to maximize learning.
WSU has played a historic role in training teachers. Founded in 1858, WSU was the first tax-supported school west of the Mississippi River. It was designed to train teachers for the "common schools of the state." The tens of millions invested into Education Village by the state restores the prominence teacher training once had in Minnesota.
"I think the state is sticking its flag in the sand with this, saying Winona State is going to be known for teacher education," Kirk said.
The project, completed by Kraus-Anderson, also includes flourishes like floor art, brightly colored glass doors and an abundance of open space, all meant to make the village an inviting.
"It's a place where students can feel at home. I want them to come to work but also to socialize," Kirk said. "It's built to be a collaborative space, not just a lot of little boxes in a bigger box."