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STEM - Turning the Buzz into Functional Design

08.08.13 / Nancy Cottone, AIA, LEED AP

Within the field of education there has been a lot of talk about the term STEM, an acronym for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. To date, the consensus is that in order to compete globally the United States needs to produce more scientists and engineers that are educated in these key disciplines.  A major concern is that there are not enough qualified candidates to fill high-tech jobs that fuel the economy.
The need for interdisciplinary education is crucial for students to succeed in today’s evolving workforce.   Increasingly, the lines are being blurred between the different fields in the STEM jobs of today. This supports the trend to move towards a more integrated curriculum instead of teaching these subjects in isolation. Also important to the STEM educational model is project-based learning, mimicking the analytical, problem solving and teamwork challenges that are common in the workplace.

As architects, we are seeing more and more STEM center projects arising in campus plans for universities and independent schools across the nation.  At ARC we have already begun working with our clients on such projects. Designing spaces that will facilitate the interdisciplinary, project-based nature of STEM initiatives is important to the success of this developing educational model. In designing buildings for these centers, key considerations include:

- Providing a project based learning experience
- Developing an interdisciplinary program mix
- Showcasing learning
- Providing curriculum flexibility
- Encouraging interactions and innovation
- Integrating technology

In order for the curriculum to become integrated, direct adjacencies and shared spaces for multiple disciplines are required.  For one of our clients, their existing Science and Math wings are next to each other, but simply being near one another is not enough. The integration of academic programs and the sharing of common space are what make a STEM center most successful. Our new design calls for full integration of the science and math teaching spaces, eliminating the individual teaching labs and classrooms, thus creating a unified space that works in support of STEM. Courses such as Computer Science, Robotics, and high level DNA research are also being incorporated into the new center, which in turn, will reinforce the Technology and Engineering components of the STEM curriculum. The key is integration of these interdisciplinary classrooms throughout the building as indicated in the diagram below.


 
Caption: Program / Relationship Diagram

As designers it is challenging to provide a variety of multifunctional spaces that meet the needs of multiple disciplines, especially those in the science and technology fields which have specific requirements, but STEM center design is also an opportunity to design creative and adaptable spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate not only the current, but future educational models.

Caption: Flexible Classrooms

The labs, classrooms, and support spaces are all designed to accommodate a variety of activities including, but not limited to, student and teacher demonstrations, group projects, and individual research space.  Flexibility is important within teaching spaces because the curriculum and subject matter are constantly evolving.  Keeping lab benches modular and mobile allows them to be reconfigurable for individual or group exercises, while locating fixed utilities along the perimeter of the classroom allows the center learning space to be moved around depending on the activities happening in the class on that day.

Caption: Flexible Teaching Lab

Modern educational spaces have moved away from the teacher focused instruction stations to a more collaborative team based teaching method. To make these teaching styles effective, it is essential to provide the spaces for collaboration.  Incorporating common breakout areas, touchdown stations, and study clusters into the core of the building, offers a space where interactive exploration can flourish.  Additionally, allowing views and visual connections into labs and classrooms can spark curiosity and promote student interests.


 
Caption: Common Space

Lastly, we see STEM centers as an opportunity to encourage a discourse with the inhabitants and enhance their education. In other words, the building and its design can be used as a teaching tool since the best examples are real world applications. Incorporating sustainable practices and technologies into the building will allow students and teachers to use the building as a resource for lessons and will also reinforce the pedagogy of the program. As a STEM center it is important to provide an energy efficient building that engages students. Providing ways for students and teachers to monitor and control the energy use of the building allows them to be active stewards in sustainability.  Aesthetics and comfort are also crucial sustainable features.  It is important to design a building that is pleasing to its occupants, that encourages productivity, and creates a sense of pride for the building’s users.

Our ultimate objective in the designing of a STEM building is to provide a space where students can flourish, while delivering a space that supports the project based learning approach and reaffirms the focus of the program by promoting wonder and the quest for knowledge.

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