Designing The Perfect STEAM Centre

Over the last decade or so STEM’s (and, more recently, STEAM) popularity has seen it position itself as one of the most salient trends of the 21st Century focussed school. No longer do schools only offer Science, Mathematics, or focussed curriculum like Chemistry and Biology, but instead a multimodal, holistic approach to outcomes is being considered. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) is not about the individual subjects that are taught discretely, but about the integration of all aspects of STEAM to further education. A learning space that allows this coming together of previously separated disciplines moves beyond the 19th and 20th century mode of working and allows us to reimagine what the future may be like.

According to the Australian Federal Government‘s data, STEM careers are growing at a rate of 19.7% p.a., which is nearly twice the rate of other occupations (x1.9). While they do believe that over the next five years this may slow to 11.6%, this is significantly still larger than the average growth of 7.5% for other industries. Over half (56%) of employers also report that they struggle finding suitable STEM employees. With education’s focus on “21st Century Skills“, it’s important to set our students up for the future where the jobs they may have don’t yet exist. Instead, we need to install in them the critical and creative thinking those jobs may require. STEAM gives us an answer.

I currently have the great fortune to be working with a client school who are currently designing their new STEAM Centre. Planned to build as a fit-out of an older structure on a modest budget, the new STEAM Centre is a fantastic opportunity to engage the school community, students and teachers particularly, about what should go into the Centre. Most of all, we needed to understand the core of what a STEAM Centre should include. Having worked as a Digital Technologies teacher, project lead, and an eLearning Specialist for some time, I have been able to work with the teachers to identify what is at the core of this for them.

Curriculum Focussed, Not Curriculum Driven

When we focus on the specific curriculum, we ignore the fact that five years ago most of these subjects (Game Design, Digital Technologies, etc) did not exist. Outside the core of Maths and Science, Technology and Art, the 21st Century approach to these, including 3D printers, laser cutters, robotics, electronics – we need to be careful to imagine a building that goes beyond the tools, and focuses on the space. We need to be focussing on the curriculum, but not driven by it.

When we began thinking about the STEAM Centre we immediately heard statements like “We need room for my subject to go in there”, and “We need a wet lab for science”. Before digging into what goes in there, though, we needed to ask ourselves how will it go in there? This might seem like an odd question at first, but it really becomes the driving force. This school, for example, has recently built, modern science laboratories. It would be little to no sense to include a new one for the sake of having science in a STEAM Centre, particularly when this Centre is going to be very limited in size (to fit within the existing structure) and budget. How curriculum will fit into the Centre is more important than which curriculum will go into the Centre.

Beginning the process of planning this STEAM Centre also allowed an opportune moment for the new STEM Leader (or is it STEAM Leader?) at the school to review all the STEM Subjects. We sat down together and did a crude curriculum map, starting at the senior years subjects we mapped back to the junior years. If they want to end up at, for example, “Systems Engineering” in Year 12, what is the likely pathway that they should take? What this process allowed us to do was completely re-think the curriculum. Instead of having “Science” and “Maths” in Year 7 or Year 8, it allowed us to consider what having “Streams” might look like. For example, our student consultation has told us time and time again that our students love Space. Why would we now have a Space Exploration stream, where in Science the concepts of physics, chemical reactions, force are all taught in a specific conceptual framing of Space Exploration. Why can Maths not be taught the same? We also had a lot of feedback from our students that they wanted recording studios and a focus on radio production (already our minds buzzed about the science of radio waves and frequency, the mathematical properties of amplitude and frequency, the creative side of radio plays and podcasts). The school also has a forward facing plan on virtual reality and game design. We need a concept for a Centre that incorporates many pieces: this poses a problem.

From this, we came up with a small Wishlist for the building:

  • A high-end computer lab with VR capability
  • A green-screen room for media production
  • A sound recording studio
  • A maker space with 3D printers and electronics

PBL: The Design Cycle & Cross-Curriculum Teaching

What we realised was at the core of the subjects and curriculum we were investigating is, in one way or another, The Design Cycle. In the art studio, in the recording booth, or in the science lab, a design cycle of some description was being implemented. This then needed to underpin everything that we did. We wanted our students to be able to break off into groups and design, think, plan. The classrooms had to be flexible enough that they would allow student group work in many different ways.

Next, the school has a big focus on PBL, and particularly cross-curriculum (or at the very least cross-class) collaboration. The new STEAM Centre should embody this somehow. How do we have designated classroom space that allows a noisy class to plan, think, do, while also removing the walls to enable collaboration between classrooms?

Our space Wishlist:

  • Individual classrooms for “normal” teaching times
  • Large break-out spaces for students studying
  • Ability to open classrooms up wherever possible

The Design

The process from start to finish is a long one, and ultimately the designs will be done through an architect. Working with the teachers of this school we did a walkthrough of the existing space and began imaging what a functional space would look like. I then went away and applied theory and research to this to come up with the best space we could. Of course, it does not yet take into consideration what is actually doable from a budget and infrastructure standpoint, but it’s a starting conversation to have with the architects.

What was eventually designed was a 2 story building that met all the requirements outlined above, and more.

As you walk through the front doors immediate on your left hand side is the Maker Space, enclosed in glass to make it both a functioning space for students and teachers, but transparent so interaction and inspiration can occur. Opposite this is two recording booths with the ability to both record, or for one to produce the other. These have been placed at the very front of the building as you walk in as these spaces are not only teaching spaces, but designed to be used by students outside of class time, including at lunch and after school.

The next major space is an open area surrounded by balcony on three sides. In it is a retractable ‘stadium’ or lecture-style seating facing a large digital display. While the seats are retracted tables and chairs are scattered around the bottom as a break out space for students. The display, seats included, can be used for guest lectures, community courses, and media presentations. The school intends on doing VR tournaments, game clubs, and often holds interesting lectures for community members.The wrapped balcony also plays an important role. While the lecture style seating will provide a large audience, the balcony spaces also have seating and overlook the digital display, extending the audience space.

The balconies also provide a space where our classes can (safely) do experiments from a heigh indoors (think egg-drops, force / gravity, pulleys, etc).

Beyond the lecture space are three classrooms, all enclosed in glass. The doors between them being giant glass sliding doors, allowing the space – all the way from the lecture space to the far wall, to be opened up, creating a single, giant space for events, teaching moments, or other not yet considered ideas. Similarly, the doors between any 2 of the classrooms can be opened to create flexible spaces.

The glass was chosen to not only allow transparency and visibility, but also provide an opportunity for break out spaces. While cleaning is a consideration, I have seen similar classrooms in other STEAM Centres which facilitate the amazing creative skills of students. When the teacher says “Go!” the student groups can simply go to the nearest wall and start designing with white board markers. Each classroom has glass sliding doors opening onto a corridor, also, so students do not need to go through one class to get to another.

What cannot be seen in this picture is that next to the third classroom, the walk way, which houses a large storage unit along the far wall, has a “green screen” media room to allow media production.

Above the three glass classrooms is a second floor, with a high-end computer lab housing the game design and VR capabilities. The layout of this room is such that the computers are around the outside of the room, allowing the teacher to always be able to see all screens, and also to provide a large space in the centre for the students to test out their VR, robotic, and game creations. Beside this a storage room, and in front movable seats in a break out space that can be around in any configuration, including overlooking the lecture space.

Upstairs on the opposite end of the building is another break out space with more seating for students to work in groups or individually.

While this process has just began, and the building is some 2 years away, this process allowed the students and teachers to have a say in what they wanted. All those ideas were collated and turned into the design above. These designs were put to the teachers and decided it was a great use of the space, and already began sparking ideas of what could happen in the years to come, all thanks to the layout and design within the building.

Brodie is an eLearning and Education Leadership Specialist. He helps schools get the most out of their ICT and digital capabilities, and plan for the future of STEM integration in the classroom. Having studies his B. Education and teaching across South Australia, Northern Territory, and Victoria he now has a Masters of Educational Leadership and is studying his Doctorate in Educational Technology.