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No longer just labs and math classrooms, today's STEM spaces are becoming hubs for the comprehensive student experience with STEM spaces.

STEM spaces are emerging as new campus epicenters

No longer just labs and math classrooms, today's STEM spaces are becoming hubs for the comprehensive student experience

By Charles Smith, AIA, Co-Director of Education Practice, CannonDesign June 9th, 2021

There is an exciting convergence occurring on college campuses across the nation. At the same moment, STEM fields are becoming more popular and in-demand due to labor growth, and the STEM spaces where students work, study, live, and play on campus are becoming incredibly synergistic.

This equates to STEM spaces emerging as new epicenters for campus life, where students can meet with friends, grab coffee, and hang out–even if they aren’t there for specific academic needs or research. There are numerous dynamic examples of this shift.

  • Purdue University Northwest has opened a new Nils K. Nelson Bioscience Innovation Building that unites the school’s College of Nursing and Department of Biology, incorporating cross-disciplinary skills labs adjacent to public spaces so all students can experience the innovative culture. Designed as not only a simulation and laboratory building, it is also the new front door for the campus and has become an aggregator of people and collaborative activity.
  • Santa Monica College is shaping a new Math and Science Building to connect key departments previously scattered across campus. The project establishes an interdisciplinary STEM community and new campus gateway, all along a key pedestrian passage for all students. The building and its surrounding features will serve as a social and educational destination for all students.
  • Towson University has opened a new science facility that houses all teaching, research, and administrative functions for multiple sciences and seeks to maximize integration between multidisciplinary teaching and research. A multi-story atrium with theater seating creates a must-visit hub for all university students within the building.

With occupations in STEM fields expected to grow 8 percent by 2029 compared with 3.4 percent for all other occupations (, this real estate pivot is an exciting consideration for all colleges and universities. Not only will the pivot help institutions graduate more students for these in-demand fields, it may also help them boost enrollment, graduation, and address underrepresentation of black, indigenous, and other students of color. Strong STEM environments should also boost retention, as currently a smaller proportion of students who declared majors in natural sciences and engineering (69 percent) remained enrolled in their field three years into their postsecondary education relative to students who declared non-STEM majors (82 percent).

Dynamic STEM buildings can be a boon to student recruitment and retention, learning success, and fostering a campus-wide STEM culture. Here’s a deeper look at why the shift is important and ideas for implementation on any campus nationwide.

STEMs as Hubs for Student Experience – What’s Different About That?

Traditional STEM academic buildings were predominantly designed to accommodate coursework. This means students would come there for class, then head to other spaces on campus for socialization, nourishment, connection, etc. Moreover, STEM buildings have not historically been viewed as opportunities for dynamic architecture or visual beauty. The buildings were often set to the edge of campus, labs might have been in basements, and decisions were driven more by space for equipment than space for people.

In understanding that, it becomes clearer why creating STEM academic buildings as campus hubs demands new ideas and reprioritization. Putting “science on display” requires a careful strategy, new resource allocation, and integration with a larger campus plan and vision.

Additionally, the postsecondary education journey increasingly includes undergraduate research, beginning as early as freshman year. Curricula with undergrad research opportunities engender added excitement, mentoring opportunities, and hands-on learning, all deepening students’ commitment to their respective STEM field. This type of learning strengthens employment pipelines and requires facilities designed for group collaboration, and resources that keep students coming back.

How do you design STEM buildings as hubs for student experience? The key step is to infuse them with spaces that include the comforts and features that draw students to other areas of campus.

Design teams often refer to these features as “speed bumps” because including them in an academic building can prevent students from simply making beelines for the exit after class. Features might include a coffee shop, dining options, collaboration zones, flexible meeting rooms, exhibits, lounge areas, or atriums where academics coexist with the social aspects of student life. Corridors, when designed with a “linger longer” approach and slightly extra-wide footprint, can be infused with touch-down space, side counter-height laptop benches, and small casual seating areas. Recent trends indicate colleges and universities are dedicating an average of between 7 to 15 percent of the net assignable square footage to informal spaces that are extensions of the learning environment.

These “speed bumps” can be built upon by employing internal glass walls throughout the building so students can see their peers engaged in STEM learning environments. Another idea is to include spaces more focused on inclusion—like lactation/nursing rooms and gender-inclusive bathrooms—so everyone feels at home.

This mashup of social, academic, and research space makes STEM buildings magnets for much more than classroom or lab-based learning. They can become the new “see and be seen” environments on campus.

What does this all mean for the future of the college campus? There are different possibilities that this exciting shift in STEM learning spaces could make real. Foremost, as institutions invest more capital and design strategy into these STEM buildings, expect them to be more pivotal stops on campus tours for new students. Essentially, this design movement repositions STEM buildings as campus icons as opposed to buildings more attuned simply for mass throughput.

These rejuvenated STEM buildings will also be more of a focus for recruiting faculty and new industry partnerships. Just as great buildings are “magnets” for students, they’ll also attract professors and industry partners that can make new programs and learning opportunities. Unique STEM facilities and programs transform previously unimagined ideas into reality and become major assets as institutions fight to keep and increase enrollments.

It also means, STEM buildings will play more of a complementary role in students’ personal and social journeys through higher education. Before just making STEM buildings more like student unions, libraries, and recreation centers, institutions should step back and devise a fully comprehensive approach. Ideally, resources and amenities in STEM buildings are complementary to those in these other types of spaces. This will create a holistic campus-wide approach that generates more dynamic STEM and student life cultures.

There are numerous positives ahead for campuses that reposition their STEM buildings as social hubs. So yes, let’s create spaces where students want to check the beakers, pass the coffee, shoot the breeze, and more. Inch by inch, day by day, these spaces can nourish student experience on all fronts.

About the Author:

Charles Smith, AIA, is the co-director of CannonDesign’s education practice. He helps colleges and universities create spaces and strategies that empower students and institutions to flourish.

If you are interested in learning more about designing STEM facilities, join thought leaders from higher education institutions across the country for a free webinar on Tuesday, June 15, 2-3 p.m. EDT. Details about the event and the option to sign up are available here.

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