Designing for STEM

BCWH recently teamed with Ballinger, a Philadelphia-based design firm with an expertise in planning science environments, to collaborate on a Programming and Design Study for a new undergraduate STEM building for VCU’s Monroe Park campus. Nationally, there is a shortage of STEM workers to fulfill the growing demands of the labor market*, and less than 40% of students that enter college intending to major in a STEM field ultimately complete STEM degrees**. Let’s face it: science and math contain big words, long equations, and can be very intimidating, especially for freshmen who easily fall behind in un-engaging, large lecture-based classes.

VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences enrolls over 14,000 students, more than half of VCU’s undergraduate population. The college teaches over 370,000 student credit hours per year, with 109,000 of those in the areas of the basic sciences: they are well-poised to make an impact on STEM education in Virginia and beyond***.

So what does today’s higher education STEM environment look like and how can we make the profession more open and inviting to teenagers transitioning into adulthood? We can start by tearing down the walls – well, not completely, but let’s build them out of glass so we can highlight what goes on inside of a science classroom: creating interest, engagement, and dialogue between what is learned during the hours spent inside a freshman laboratory with what happens beyond the walls of a classroom. Let’s replace sterile, opaque walls and dark corridors with informal, inviting spaces outside of the classroom so that conversations that get started during a lab can be continued in a comfortable space where students can collaborate, work through ideas together, and debate the merits of their work and current events in their field. Today’s labs are flexible and open – allowing instructors to teach from anywhere in the room and still be visible to all participants. Students and instructors can easily move around, their experiments can be captured, projected, and discussed in real-time. Flexible spaces can transform from biology to physics to anthropology labs as curriculum develops and interests evolve. Connections in learning are emphasized and science is always in sight.

Outside of the laboratory, the sciences are supported by math, art, and humanities. Maker spaces, studios, and project labs allow for opportunities to further explore topics of student interest. Self-paced instructional opportunities are catered to through 24-hour monitored lab access for coursework and tutoring. Flexible classroom and support space allows for seminar, topic-based discussions, poster sessions, and presentations from visiting lecturers along with community outreach and engagement opportunities.

STEM studies

A STEM building itself should be a living display of the natural rhythms and harmonies found within science and mathematics. It should not feel sterile, but comfortable and full of light and art to invite the student community to stay and make STEM the heart of their educational experience. We need redevelop the STEM curriculum to engage, activate, and challenge our young learners, and architecture can be a catalyst through which the fields of science and math reintroduce themselves to college students as subjects of rhythm, vibrancy, fluency, and connection. If we are going to develop 21-st century learners for the careers of tomorrow, we must teach them in a innovative building environment that encourages them to question, connect, and engage with the world around them.


*US Dept. of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics
**Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
***VCU Statistics

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