Design That Takes College STEM Education to the Next Level 

Jun 08 2023

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are skyrocketing.

Research conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that jobs in STEM are projected to grow more than 10% between 2021 and 2031. As the need for STEM workers continues to rise, many community colleges and universities are working to expand their STEM programs and build innovative educational spaces that will prepare students for the world outside of the classroom.   

Quality architecture and interior design can take college STEM departments to the next level. Here are just a few ways that thoughtful design can help science, engineering, and technology programs thrive:  

1. Taking Design Inspiration from the Workplace

Academic institutions looking to enhance their STEM education spaces can learn a lot from the design of commercial science and tech facilities, as well as health care design. Creating labs that look and feel like the professional working environments and installing the equipment used in the industries will not only help produce better results in the classroom, but a stronger STEM workforce.  

East Carolina University’s (ECU) Carol Belk Lab

When renovating ECU’s Carol Belk Labs, the design team planned space for all the equipment necessary to conduct research and experiments. Much of the equipment used can also be found in commercial research and development labs around the world.

2. Planning for Future Flexibility

Since research, technology, and teaching methods are constantly evolving any educational space needs to be flexible and functional. 

Studies found that undergraduate students in classes with traditional lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students partaking in more hands-on learning. To keep up with trends in education and recent technology and research, STEM classrooms must be easily adaptable to form multiple configurations as needed. 

Aside from keeping up with emerging technologies and teaching methods, university labs are often shared amongst several different disciplines. These labs should be designed with different disciplines using the space in mind so that spaces are designed safely and effectively. 

Duke University’s Teer Engineering Building

Wheels on the desks and tables in this engineering classroom at Duke University’s Teer Engineering Building make it easy for students to move around the classroom to collaborate on group projects. Laying out the classroom so that anchored items, such as casework, cabinets, and other permanent storage items, are on the outer walls will help maximize workspace.

3. Keeping Users Safe

Designers need to address many safety concerns when creating wet and dry lab spaces. A wet lab is a type of laboratory where drugs, chemicals, and other biological matter can be analyzed and tested. A dry lab is a laboratory that focuses on more applied or computational research.  

Safety features for wet labs include:  

  • Eyewash stations. 
  • Textured surfaces and floors to prevent damage and destruction from spills and overuse.  
  • Ventilation equipment. 
  • Safe places to dispose of hazardous material.  

Due to the sometimes-hazardous nature of the materials used in wet labs, these labs have more constraints compared to dry labs; however, for students and faculty to be successful, all labs need to be designed to fit safety standards. 

4. Encouraging Collaboration

Collaboration is a vital component of scientific innovation, discovery, and education. Designing STEM education facilities to intentionally foster collaboration between students, professors, and university partners in planned settings and organically are vital elements of quality STEM education design.  

There are many ways that designers can foster collaboration in STEM education buildings, including: 

  1. Creating a mixture of large and small group collaboration spaces and individual workspaces. Having many workspace options allows students to choose where they work best. 
  1. Including amenities such as cafés and dining options, outdoor spaces, and lounge areas in STEM buildings to help foster collaboration outside of the classroom. 
  1. Promoting the cross-pollination of ideas by creating research spaces where students of various disciplines can interact. 
ECU Health Science Student Center

The Health Science Student Center at ECU’s Health Science Campus was created to provide students studying health sciences with a central recreation and wellness center on their campus. This standalone student center is one of the few medical campus student centers in the United States. The design of this center encourages students to focus on their well-being and to form organic connections outside of the classroom. 

Putting Innovations on Display

Creating spaces in the building that highlight the innovations taking place can help to encourage collaboration, inspire students to conduct research and ask questions, and is an effective recruitment tool for new students touring the school. 

The addition of windows on the exterior and interior walls of the building can allow others to observe the research and innovation coming out of the building. As students walk through the hallways, they will get inspiration from their peers’ work.  

Welcoming to All Students

While most users in an academic lab are STEM majors and professors, it is important to note that most colleges require all students to take at least one laboratory science course as part of their general education requirements. Knowing this, architects should design spaces that are practical and welcoming for users of all levels of experience.  

Piedmont Community College Lab

Together, we can help create the next generation of STEM leaders.