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Building and designing college and university STEM facilities

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To meet the workforce demands of the future, America needs well-trained college graduates majoring in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health, a field commonly known as STEM education. As institutions of higher learning begin recruiting more students into coursework in these fields, outdated and inadequate facilities must be updated to meet this increased demand and create new spaces that cater to the future of STEM education.

Pointing to the research

EYP, a global consulting group with an eye on high-performance building design, has identified several strategies that colleges and universities can utilize to make STEM facilities a magnet for students and professors. The firm says such facilities should include:

1. Numerous strategically-placed “soft spaces,” such as lounges, alcoves and study areas, that spur informal learning and chance encounters for both students and faculty outside of class time

2. Flexible, innovative laboratory spaces that promote safe but efficient hands-on/active learning methods in which students can discover, digest and apply information while adjusting to the size and intention of the group;

3. Reconfigurable classroom spaces where professors can move furniture, create workgroups on the fly, and create active learning environments

4. Glass walls that put science and engineering on display and instill a heightened sense of community and collaboration

According to the EYP, an average of 15% of the square footage in interdisciplinary science buildings should be allocated for informal learning spaces. In the 1990s, this informal space accounted for only 5% of the floor plan.

Greer Environmental Center flexible lab space

Flexible lab space in Greer Environmental Sciences Center

Addressing the challenges

Construction of STEM facilities is not without challenges; existing facilities may require renovation or additions, and in some cases entirely new facilities must be constructed.

Many historic facilities, which are common in Virginia, must pay close attention to the preservation of existing elements. For example, many Virginia universities appear on historical registers and require collaboration with the Department of Historic Resources before performing any renovation. It’s also important to honor the character of the historic surroundings that these facilities often reside within. These older buildings often contain inadequate mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems, which could lead to costly and time-consuming updates.

Traditional academic buildings were often designed around lecture-oriented individual classrooms with little ability to promote collaborative group work. The current concept of “flipped classrooms” has been shown to be more effective, allowing students to spend class time focusing on exercises, projects, and discussions rather than traditional lectures. By keeping spaces as open and flexible as possible, classroom configurations can function as study area, research lab or discussion space with minimal effort.

Meeting the need

The development of a standalone environmental sciences building is a prime example of how STEM facilities must be built to meet the changing demands of academics. The Virginia Wesleyan College Greer Environmental Sciences Center in Virginia Beach is a modern, 40,000-square-foot facility that serves as a cornerstone to the university’s environmental sciences program.

The center is constructed to spur collaboration across a mix of settings, featuring sophisticated indoor and outdoor learning spaces that embody “science on display” and promote hands-on experiences, interactive learning among teams, and interdisciplinary research in STEM fields.

The structure is organized thematically around the earth’s four spheres – atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere, so those who flow throughout the building will do so in a manner consistent with the ways of nature. The facility contains seven customized laboratory spaces for various disciplines: chemistry, biology, oceanography, hydrology, marine and earth sciences as well as Geospatial Information Systems (GIS).

Classrooms and common spaces will also be accessible to non-science majors and provide opportunities for all students to develop a closer connection to the sciences. The greenhouse and research garden – an “outdoor classroom” – will include landscaping that emulates local ecosystems and creates a habitat for local wildlife.

Further embodying the ideal of “science on display,” the building itself will exemplify the STEM program in all aspects. The center’s sustainable design features a geothermal ground-source heat exchange, as well as photovoltaic solar panels and a small-scale wind turbine. Natural light will flow through the building’s large, eastern-facing side and capture the morning light.

The Greer Environmental Sciences Center aims to become a space conducive to the ever-changing needs of education and sustainability. In addition to including elements specific to STEM facilities, it will also be targeting LEED GOLD certification. For more information about the center, visit the Greer microsite.

Informal congregation space in Georgiadis Hall

Informal congregation space in Georgiadis Hall at Reynolds Community College