Designing Community College Classrooms to Mirror Modern Working Environments 

Apr 18 2024

Nationally, community college enrollment has grown 4.3% since 2021, with a 4.4% increase in enrollment in fall of 2023 according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center*.  

When community colleges were first built and introduced in the early 1900s, they were viewed as an extension of a high school education; now they have evolved to be much more. While academic preparation is still a core function of the community college; their role in society is changing as vocational education programs, job training, and adult continuing education are increasingly sought after.

The growth of community colleges has not gone unnoticed either as community colleges across the country have begun lobbying for an increase in funding to match their growing student populations.

As community colleges become a more popular choice for students to continue their education, it is important that the environments they are learning in each day closely mirror the working environments that they will be entering upon graduation. One method educators are turning to is to teach using simulation classrooms.

What Are Simulation Classrooms?  

Simulation classrooms are learning spaces designed to replicate real-life working environments that students will one day enter. These types of learning environments help students understand through experience what to expect in modern working environments ranging from the types of equipment they will be working with to some of the complex situations they will handle in their professions.

Students who engage in simulated learning environments are more likely to retain the course materials and to feel more confident entering the workforce after graduation. Several academic fields of learning use simulation classrooms such as nursing, dental hygiene, and cosmetology to help train their students to become competent professionals.

Dental hygiene simulation classroom at UNC Chapel Hill

Creating Immersive Experiences – Key Elements of Design  

When designing simulation classrooms, there are several key elements to consider:

  • Can the space easily adapt to changing program needs?
  • Can professional equipment and technology be incorporated?
  • Can traditional elements of education design be merged with simulation spaces?

One of the best ways to ensure that simulated learning environments are properly designed is to meet with course instructors during the early phases of design. Course instructors are one of the best resources for a designer to consult because they know what they need to teach skills and are deeply familiar with real-life working environments in their field.

Another great resource to use during the design process for simulation classrooms is any experience creating work environments for different industries. For example, if a designer is developing a dental hygiene training classroom and has experience designing dental offices, the knowledge from that past projects will help to inform the classroom design.

How “Real” Should These Simulation Classrooms Look and Feel? 

A certain level of realism is required to prepare learners for real-world situations. It is important that learners can practice interacting with the equipment and situations that they will encounter on the job.

Beyond the equipment, the fidelity of the simulation classrooms – or how “real” they look – is an important consideration and varies depending on what skills are being practiced in the space.

If the goal of designing a simulation space is purely to develop needed skillsets, then creating a realistic environment may not be as important as focusing on using the technology. For example, a medical student practicing inserting an IV or a sonography student learning how to operate an ultrasound machine will likely be more focused on the equipment at hand than the space itself.

Creating realistic simulation environments for more intense scenarios is important to help students “get in the zone.” For example, medical students practicing codes or surgical skills and law enforcement officers practicing driving in a high-speed pursuit need to practice in realistic settings (such as in a simulated operating room or police car) so that they can learn and make mistakes in a safe environment before entering the workforce.

Case Study #1: Alamance Community College Culinary Arts Program

Alamance Community College approached MHAworks to convert 5,000 square feet of existing space on their campus into an expanded kitchen for their culinary arts program. In addition to the new, restaurant-grade kitchen, the renovation provided an adjacent classroom space that could be converted into dining space to simulate real-world experience between the cooking and serving arenas.

One of the key elements of designing any simulated learning environment is flexibility. As industry standards and technology are constantly changing, it is vital that the learning environments are evolving alongside the industries they are preparing students to enter upon graduation. 


Unlike real-life work environments, simulation classrooms must also change in tandem with the campus they occupy. When planning Alamance Community College’s new culinary arts program area, the design of the adjacent classroom spaces to create a larger, open dining room was accomplished with moving partitions. This allowed the needs of the culinary program to be met, while still serving the neighboring programs located in the same building.

Simulation classroom at Alamance Community College. This classroom is for the culinary department and it looks exactly like a restaurant kitchen.

Case Study #2: Pitt Community College Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) Center

MHAworks renovated the 15,000 square foot BLET facility at Pitt Community College. Once a space housing a Champion’s Gym, this training center now cultivates student learning in both the classroom and through real-world simulation spaces.

Five classrooms of varying sizes and technological capabilities are available for seminar-style learning. One classroom features an aluminum storefront wall system with sliding doors to encourage a more open connection along with a smart board teaching wall that encourages engagement between professors and students.

Driving simulation machine for Pitt CC's Basic Law Enforcement Training Program.

The BLET facility fully integrates technology by allowing students to perform test driving in a simulated driving machine and shooting in a simulation firing range. Allowing students to practice these skills in a simulated environment before going into the field helps to keep students safe and increase their confidence in the field.

Staying true to the needs of a traditional educational building, this design includes a lobby,
administrative offices, and a student break room with space for meal storage, a vending machine, and seating. The building also maintains high ceilings and new LED lights that make the entire facility feel large and open.


Together, we create classrooms that prepare students for the future.   

*National Student Clearinghouse Research Center –