Designing Schools for STEM

Is school design for STEM about encouraging chance encounters across subject areas?

The recent announcement by the SA Government of a $250m stimulus package to provide Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) facilities for government schools has prompted the question: what does designing for STEM look like?

There are many articles noting how STEM skills are vital to the future of Australia; concerns about low numbers of science and mathematics graduates; and much talk about innovation. When it comes to design of spaces for STEM in schools, the principles seem to be the same as for most other disciplines: flexible, adaptable and interconnected environments which encourage a range of learning styles and cater for different group sizes and activities. We have seen the introduction of the Maker movement into schools, with laser cutters and 3D printers now common, and the rise of all things digital.

UniSA College: Science & Maths Centre, Mawson Lakes Photograph: Michael Bodroghy

UniSA College: Science & Maths Centre, Mawson Lakes  Photographer: Michael Bodroghy

 

When planning the UniSA College Centre for Science and Maths at Mawson Lakes, we emphasized a range of table, seating and display possibilities with less emphasis on traditional lab experiments and more on space for 3D printers and scanners. The structure of the existing building only allowed us to create very small display windows facing circulation areas – but this became an advantage as it gives a museum-like prestige to the objects on display. The building fabric also tells a story – the recycled timber ceiling screen is a graph of global warming.

Concordia Centre for Science and Discovery  Foucault Stairwell
Concordia Centre for Science and Discovery Foucault Stairwell

Recent design work at Concordia College for their new Science and Discovery Centre includes maker spaces and art facilities – extending STEM to STEAM. As well as embedding mathematics into the design through patterns such as the Fibonacci series in walls, floors and ceilings, we have embedded more learning experiences throughout the building. A Foucault pendulum will swing across the stairwell, tracing the earth’s rotation as it goes. Students will be able to access a roof platform to gaze at the stars or drop weights to the ground accessed by a stairwell covered in scientific and mathematical “graffiti” explaining the forces on the structure, its chemical composition and the maths used to design it. The connections between art and science allow the sharing of both ideas and facilities.

The Mawson Institute Building V - from south-west  - Photographer: John Gollings
The Mawson Institute Building V – from south-west – Photographer: John Gollings

Perhaps the most powerful example of how design affects innovation, however, is in the real world of university research. Our work with Guida Moseley Brown Architects on the Mawson Institute Building V illustrates how universities encourage innovation by putting diverse research programs together. The building deliberately located labs and office spaces together, with a wide range of programs from plasma coating and cell therapies to augmented reality together to encourage discussion and a team approach to solving complex problems.

The small school projects won’t have the same budgets and the same mix of complex technologies, but they can encourage the same type of thinking: a creative and innovative view of the world we live in.

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