James Berry Elementary School — Houston, Texas
A group of people sitting on the floor of a building.

What strategies connect students to STEM?

Research Project Name


What We Did

We investigated the state of design in high school and college facilities focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. We began with secondary research into evolving STEM education methods, followed by tours of recently built STEM buildings in the Northeastern United States conducted with a team of education professionals. Based on these tours, we held an ideation session with tour participants to identify innovations and best practices in the design of recent STEM facilities. We then conducted conceptual design and strategy charettes to link educational methods to space needs and implications, and to identify key strategies that support new initiatives and pedagogy in STEM disciplines. The result was a suite of design strategies to foster new developments and methods in high school STEM education, with a goal of aligning these to inform the design of high school STEM facilities.

The Context

In recent years, there has been a flurry of media and policy attention on the importance of STEM education to long-term US competitiveness and the success of today’s children in the future workforce. The nation continues to fall in global competitiveness rankings in STEM disciplines, bringing into question not only the success of the next generation in an increasingly global, competitive workforce, but the nation’s ability to maintain its position as a scientific and economic leader.

Challenges in K–12 STEM education translate into a lack of science and technology college graduates, which results in fewer US scientists and engineers for employers. Research suggests that early engagement in STEM courses is imperative, with high school serving as a vital link for students pursuing these subjects in higher education. To create and maintain an engaged and forward-thinking workforce, the whole education pipeline needs to be strengthened.

The Results

We connected pedagogical thinking, programmatic requirements, and conceptual building design to arrive at three overarching themes that we believe define successful high school STEM teaching and spaces. First, STEM facilities should reveal the connections between people and disciplines. Even passive exposure to different fields of study is an opportunity to encourage students to form dynamic relationships between subjects, and student-teacher interaction is imperative to engagement. Second, learning doesn’t happen only in the classroom. Successful STEM facilities engage students in a variety of ways throughout the day and use the learning environment itself as a teaching tool. Third, a hands-on approach to learning and teaching is a more effective means of transferring knowledge and promoting engagement in STEM subjects.

What This Means

Everything Is Connected. Activate non-classroom spaces to allow for dynamic gatherings of students and teachers, and use the building’s design to visually connect different spaces and increase the variety of interactions available throughout the day.

Anytime Is a Teaching Moment. Create teachable buildings by putting scientific inquiry on display whenever possible; increasing the transparency of classrooms to generate interest between subjects and disciplines; and using building design and engineering to tell stories about sustainability, responsibility, and engagement with the physical environment.

Learning Happens through Doing. Provide sites for experimentation by ensuring adequate space for ongoing project work as well as multizone educational spaces that offer settings for different kinds of activities. And make sure the environments have the flexibility to evolve over time.

What’s Next?

Our next steps include the implementation of these ideas and further speculation on how design can continue to support and enhance STEM pedagogy. A discussion about STEM spaces fosters a discussion about STEM pedagogy, and vice versa. The design concepts shown here are meant as the beginning of the conversation. As we put these ideas into practice through our ongoing project work, we continue to pose questions to ourselves and to the K–12 community. We also understand that these strategies are most easily applied in new construction or major renovation scenarios, yet many schools struggle with financing such projects. Feasible strategies for transforming existing environments are also a consideration moving forward.

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Maddy Burke-Vigeland, Mark Thaler, Kimberly Kelly, Meredith Moore, Santiago Rivera Gonzalez, Dr. Rodney V. Jarnett (Dwight-Englewood School)

Year Completed