Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Nancy Scheinman hated being in school.
"Most schools are so institutional and visually boring, I looked out the window all the time," she said.
So it is fitting that the Stoneleigh resident, apart from her career as an established collage artist with an international following, now heads NS Studios, a team of young artists and designers, who are transforming school settings into "unique and imaginative spaces" as Scheinman describes them.
Using art installations and murals, she designs three-dimensional, multisensory environments that set the scene for experiential learning — learning through direct experience instead of just about the experience of others.
Envision hallways transformed into streetscapes with storefronts, restaurants, signage, front stoops and faux cobblestone street surfaces, where, guided by teachers, students learn about business, serving food, counting money. A mural of an antique store helps pupils envision the past and encourage them to tell the story of their own families.
The colorful, complex installations are designed to bolster a school's programs and curriculum. The murals tell stories, portray a past to be remembered or a dream to be achieved, she said. Her installations invite interaction.
"Children need an environment that is stimulating," Scheinman said.
NS Studios' latest experiential environments project is the tuition-free Monarch Academy Public Charter School Baltimore, sponsored by The Children's Guild in Baltimore.
Since 1996, Scheinman has collaborated with the guild, which operates a number of schools and facilities in Baltimore, and Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties that serve youngsters who are learning-challenged because they are either at-risk, suffer from disabilities or are disadvantaged in some way.
Monarch Baltimore, like other guild-operated schools, follows the school jurisdiction's curriculum requirements. In addition, its mission, is to create a culture where students are guided to "think critically, problem-solve creatively, become self-disciplined" and to "understand that the goal of life is to serve a cause larger than one's self."
But the guild's guiding philosophy is "transformation education," which revolves around teachers and staff adjusting to fit the needs of the student and is characterized in part by learning through stimulating visuals.
"Art is a powerful teaching tool," said Andrew Ross, guild CEO and president and a co-founder of the transformation education theory. "The brain is like a pharmacy. Environment stimulates those chemicals."
The Brain Trail, which is on display at guild headquarters and on-order for the Monarch school, is a perfect example. The 4-foot-high nose in the hallway with its flashing neon lights and push-buttons entice students to learn about the brain as if they were playing a video game.
The cafeteria is designed to look like Waverly Market to help students explore gardening, nutrition, money and arithmetic, and history. Murals show the African Americans who became entrepreneurial arabbers selling produce from carts drawn by ponies.
"Nancy is really good at taking the ideas we are trying to convey to the children and turning them into something exciting that motivates them to learn," Ross said.
Monarch Baltimore is the second of four charter schools with experiential environments planned by the guild. The first has been operating in Glen Burnie. The others are scheduled for Laurel later this year and for Anne Arundel County next year.
Located since September on Kirk Avenue in the northeast section of the city in what had been the Coca-Cola Building, Monarch Baltimore currently serves 1,000 students grades kindergarten through sixth grade. Within two years, plans call for adding seventh and eighth grades.
Monarch was housed formerly in the guild's headquarters on McClean Boulevard in an environment nearly as enriched as in the environment of its new quarters will be.
Scheinman confers with school representatives on a concept from the curriculum and then creates the multi-sensory environment design to support it. Once computer images of the design are done, she and NS Studios artists transfer the images to school walls.
"We get better each time," Scheinman said. "It's a work-in-progress," Scheinman said, adding that the project could take a year or more to complete.