A building that changes futures

When the East Syracuse-Minoa school district began an energy performance contract with Siemens they expected savings on their utilities – what they got was a corporate partner in the development of their 1960s factory-era school into a model for 21st century innovative learning.

At the same time as Superintendent Dr. Donna DeSiato was looking to upgrade the building systems across the East Syracuse-Minoa (ESM) school district, she also wanted to change the educational model. “We were very cognizant of the fact that our district had been built during an era that focused on industry,” she says. “We had to move away from that siloed delivery of content-area subjects in a separate platform and toward building trans-disciplinary learning, problem solving, and project-based learning.”


As part of the project to update ESM’s building systems, Siemens committed to support the district’s efforts to update their educational delivery system. Account Executive Steve Heaslip began discussions with DeSiato and others from the district to determine how Siemens could support their vision. Learning tours to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) model schools were arranged and upon their return Heaslip says, “It became very clear we had a lot more to offer the district.”

Education for the digital revolution

With the advent of the digital revolution in industry education must adapt to the requirements of the workplace. With the support of Siemens, ESM began to discuss “how our middle school and high school learning models might become transformed into being highly engaging and very student-centered, with relevance and real-life application,” according to DeSiato.

We have to be actively engaged in supporting the development of the next generation’s work force.
Charles Cohen, Siemens Sustainability Education Director

“Everything we do on as a company relates around science, technology, engineering and math,” says Charles Cohen, Director of Siemens Sustainability Education Program, which was able to offer grants to help ESM’s teachers with certification in STEM learning systems, as well as support the district in their fund-raising efforts with the state.

“We knew that we were providing instruction in a digital age and in a global economy, and we needed to design the building to support the learning model that was focused on problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation,” states DeSiato. Other corporate partners were brought into the public-private partnership, including King + King Architects.

Planning for the future

ESM created 'community cafes' that included stakeholders from every part of the community: students, educators, administrators, parents, board members, community members, and corporate partners for a two-day retreat to explore what 21st century education means. They began to develop the vision for the new building collaboratively.

Participants in the community cafes answered a series of questions, as well as completed surveys and focus forms. The process was designed so that small groups worked together to present their ideas. The question that was asked in the student forum was: “What are our untapped resources?” The answer was: “We are.”

The students met with King + King about what they felt was important in a building. They wanted ownership of their space, leading to the design of 6th, 7th and 8th grade commons areas. “We needed to bring this building from the 1960s into this century, but we also needed to be thinking about the future, because many of these buildings will not be modified for fifty years or more, says architect Jim King, “We had to look beyond 2020. We had a look out 50 years. What is education going to be like in 2060?”

Form follows function

ESM’s Pine Grove Middle School had to be adaptable to different learning styles and to different group sizes. King + King experimented with creating larger openings between rooms and into the corridors before completing the final design. Encouraged by the results, they created spaces for individual students, as well as spaces for various groups all the way up to 125 students for a larger group exercise or educational delivery. The building became an educational space, not just a group of classrooms.

For the new high-tech building, King and King used Siemens building automation system. As part of their energy performance contract with ESM, Siemens had already upgraded boilers, lighting, and other building system throughout the district, using a network digital control system for centralized maintenance throughout the system. “We make sure they are only using the energy absolutely necessary to heat and cool the building,” says Heaslip.

“We are very pleased with the fact that we have an environment that is appropriately lit and that the heating and the cooling systems are now state of the art,” says DeSiato. “The climate within the building is the optimal climate for student learning.” In addition, the ESM school district has seen a savings of over $500,000 per year in energy savings, exceeding the projections of the performance contract.

The redesign of Pine Grove Middle School was one of the moments in the history of our school district that will always be recognized as a transformational moment.
Dr. Donna DeSiato, Superintendent East Syracuse-Minoa School District

A model of innovative learning

Pine Grove Middle School opened in 2016 and recently graduated its first class of 8th graders. Attendance is up, and so are test scores. However, DeSiato believes “The types of measures that have had some meaning over the last 50 years are quite meaningless in 2017.” She believes it is important to prepare students for the jobs that are being created by emerging technologies. Siemens’ Heaslip agrees, “We’re trying to build that pipeline. We’re really trying to get kids interested in that, let them know what’s out there.”

The part for me that is just incredible is the students’ and teachers’ willingness to share this with their peers across the state.
Steve Heaslip, Siemens Building Technologies Account Executive

Siemens has also changed and become more involved with educational models and the curriculum. When doing energy surveys now, it is common for engineers to visit classrooms to discuss energy with students, and they routinely arrange learning tours for educators and administrators, now to Pine Grove Middle School. Heaslip continues to work with King + King on other educational projects and now feels, “We are being seen in such a different light in our market because of the support we are giving.”


ESM incorporated arts and research into their curriculum during successive years, turning STEM into STREAM. In 2015, the district was designated as one of the first 27 STEM learning models in the country. Additionally, the district has been recognized by the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and as a New York State School Board Change for Kids Model. Over the last six years they have conducted over 100 tours for educators and administrators, coming full circle and becoming the model for 21st century education.


Author: Leane Clifton, a New York based freelance journalist.

Picture credits: Lauren Bamford

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