Designing for STEM

September 11, 2015

Approaches to education and curriculum in the classroom change almost as rapidly as the technology which supports them.  Current buzzwords such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) attempt to emphasize technology in the classroom as a way to prepare students for high-tech jobs and global competitiveness. In order for students to keep up in a world of ever-growing and changing technology, it seems clear that they should be exposed to issues of engineering and technology early on. However, when it comes to defining how STEM manifests itself in the classroom, the results are as varied as the schools in which they are developed.

Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to explore some of the best practices in education through the design process for a school renovation project. In support of our research, my project team and I attended the CEFPI Virginia conference last fall focusing on embracing STEM in K-12. We met a number of inspiring teachers who were working diligently to develop the STEM programs in Charlottesville-area schools.

Both Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School have been renovated in recent years to create spaces to support new STEM programs. The classrooms and labs at Buford’s Engineering Design Academy and the Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School have become spaces for experimentation and discovery, including tools for computer-aided design, 3D printing and mechatronics.

Following the conference my project team visited both schools with our client. There we were able to experience first-hand, how the students used the STEM spaces and our client was able to discuss with fellow educators the challenges and opportunities that are involved in developing a STEM program.

STEM programs vary at every school, with some even adding art or reading to the mix, changing the basic STEM to STEAM or STREAM. However, as Dr. Matt Shields of Charlottesville High School discussed at the CEFPI conference, STEM has to be about more than the subjects. It is not just the exposure to technology and engineering that is making these programs so successful, it is the process of inquiry-driven learning.

A STEM lab, therefore, should not be defined just by the equipment that it includes. Laser cutters, 3D printers and CAD software are secondary tools that should support the larger focus of student research and self-discovery. Even more critical than the tools themselves, STEM labs must include spaces that support small group collaboration, individual research and experimentation. In these labs, the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Therefore, adding a laser cutter to a classroom does not necessarily constitute a STEM lab. The lab itself must be able to support a completely new way of teaching and learning.

With spaces such as these, students can begin to achieve the underlying goal of STEM: connecting the knowledge and skills they learn with local and global issues, a skill far more valuable than any single subject.


-written by Allison Powell, licensed architect for BCWH