how to design a successful space for STEM

The future is coming and it’s full STE(A)M ahead. STEM (or STEAM) teaching and learning, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths, is not a passing fad.

A recent study by the Australian government highlighted a huge skills gap that cannot currently meet the growing demand of STEM-related jobs. To make up this shortfall, millions of dollars are now being invested in schools throughout Australia.

STEM learning provides students with a greater understanding of the wider, real-world context in which they are operating as well as preparing them for what lies ahead.  

STEM activities can happen anywhere, anytime.

Governments and educators understand the urgent need for students to be exposed to STEM subjects as early as possible in order to provide authentic connections and sustained engagement throughout their school life. Subsequently, schools are investing in STEM via tech, resources and dedicated spaces for students to make, create, construct, collaborate and learn. However, as Correna Haythorpe from the Australian Education Union warns, there are no shortcuts or easy solutions for boosting STEM student engagement, "the answer is in having a comprehensive education plan that includes the right resources..."

“to address our current and future global challenges, we need young people who are adaptable, creative, able to think critically, who can use their initiative and collaborate with others to develop solutions and build a productive future for themselves and future generations.”

'Engaging the future of STEM' – Ms Sarah Chapman & Dr Rebecca Vivian

Another objective of this approach is to target groups of learners, especially girls, who have not traditionally seen a future in STEM subjects and careers. And while the STEM approach is unique to each school, educators agree that its cross-curricular approach develops a set of thinking, reasoning, teamwork, investigative, and creative skills that students can use in all areas of their lives. 

Ben Dallimore, Junior School eLearning Coordinator and ICT Specialist Teacher at The Cathedral School in Townsville suggests schools look at the big picture: transdisciplinary learning. Core learnings based on globally relevant inclusive concepts that are in context with real purpose. Where students have every opportunity to have agency over their learning and choose areas of interest.

Historically, keeping girls engaged in STEM throughout their schooling has been a challenge.

When it comes to designing and implementing a STEM space, Lee Watanabe-Crockett, founder of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation and Wabisabi Learning, encourages creating of environments that provoke critical thinking and problem-solving skills. More so, ensure the spaces promote communication and collaboration.

We spoke to school leaders, education experts and our own learning space consultants, who are in classrooms every day, to truly understand what STEM teaching and learning looks like in action. Here are their insights to help you along your journey to create successful STEM spaces.  

STEM is opening fresh possibilities and learning opportunities.

Creating learning spaces to critique, construct and collaborate.

STEM isn’t revolutionary, but new tools and resources have opened fresh possibilities and better learning opportunities. Robotics, 3D printers and global connectivity are commonplace in today’s learning environments.  It’s time to view traditional classrooms a little differently – particularly those in junior schools where, unlike their secondary counterparts, there are often no dedicated spaces for individual subjects.

The Canadian International School in Singapore has transformed a large unused open space into an exciting collaborative STEAM centre providing the space for students to collaborate, present and socialise.

“steam activity presents learners with unpredictable challenges that test their application of knowledge and understanding, rather than their ability to replicate or regurgitate it.”

Professor Stephen Heppell

Make room! STEM activities can require plenty of floorspace.

STEM can happen anywhere, any time: in classrooms, libraries, school gyms, breakout areas, makerspaces or dedicated spaces, while bigger or messier projects may necessitate taking the learning outside.

Educators highlighted a requirement for areas that enable:

  • Collaboration
  • Presentation
  • Flexibility
  • Breakout activites
  • Robotics and coding
  • Makerspaces
  • Problem solving

In Victoria, Patterson River Secondary College created a STEM space adjacent to their library. Here, zoned spaces accommodate small and large groups, with a modular table system that can be clustered together or separated depending on the learning. Whiteboard tables are a key item in their spaces - popular with students who love the visible learning opportunities they afford. Take a video tour of their space and discover how students are engaging with STEM. 

Take a tour of the dynamic Patterson River Secondary College STEM space.

“already three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM capabilities and the need for STEM-qualified workers is only expected to increase in the future”

PwC - 2015

Standing height tables and furniture that can be easily moved and stored are considerations for STEM.

STEM design considerations for your classroom

STEM is a state of mind, and the good news is, you probably don’t have to throw out all your old furniture and start again. Take stock of what you currently have available to you, and then assess what you need to deliver STEM activities in your space. Remember, your furniture should allow for collaboration and innovation, activities fuelled by student imagination. 

We've developed a checklist of furniture requirements to get you started...

Checklist of your STEM furniture requirements:

•    Flexibility – furniture that is easy to move and easy to move around, will open many more opportunities for activities in that space
•    Mobility – castors on tables and other furniture items so they can be moved into place or stored away as required
•    Modularity – table solutions that can be reconfigured for solo, paired, small and large group learning are ideal in the STEM learning space
•    Choice – options for students to work at standing, sitting or kneeling work surfaces
•    Writeable surfaces – encourage collaboration and visible thinking
•    Stackable furniture - when you need more floor space to take robotics or learning down low
•    Storage - multi-purpose storage solutions that double as seating or display
•    Floor surfaces - carpet tiles enable those cleverly coded robots to move freely, whereas thick carpet will only slow them down

STEM resources and further reading:

Engaging the future of STEM study:

Professor Stephen Heppell – the importance of STEAM:

Lee Watanabe-Crockett - 8 Ways to Start Building Ultimate STEM Learning Environments

OECD statistics around gender disparity around STEM:

Business Insider - How to boost STEM in Australian Schools by Correna Haythorpe, AUS Education Union:

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