Undergraduate students are far less likely to succeed in traditional lecture-based environments compared to those in active learning environments. A recent study of undergraduate STEM teaching methods found that teaching approaches that engage students as active participants rather than passive listeners can improve learning outcomes and boost exams scores.
For designers, this means shaping education spaces that blur the lines between teaching, learning, exploring and interacting. As a result, students are inspired to do more than just come to class – they want to stay, collaborate and create.
To illustrate the movement toward integrated, multidisciplinary facilities – in this case, science, technology, engineering and math studies – our STEM designers have identified four key trends affecting the design of impactful STEM spaces in higher education.
Transparency at every level
Beyond abundant glazing and natural daylight, transparent design offers visibility into every part of the building. It creates clear, open spaces, both vertically and horizontally, that spark inquiry and interaction. It can even be used as a recruiting tool for potential students touring the building.
Transparency also supports the idea of “science on display.” This rings true at Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson Innovation Center, which will soon house parts of the College of Engineering and the Honors College. The new 116,709 SF building features a highly transparent community space – Innovation Alley – where engineering projects will be on display to generate excitement and cultivate student-faculty collaboration. The central commons are flanked by two wings that accommodate classrooms, research and teaching laboratories, and other flexible spaces that are scaled to encourage a wide range of research activities and emerging pedagogies.
Active learning classrooms
Whether using educational technology, group activity, flipped classrooms or a combination of strategies in conjunction with classroom instruction, active learning methods are paving the way for new and evolving pedagogies. We’re also seeing greater interest in immersive environments that give students the opportunity to interact and practice their skills, both with each other and with technology that can simulate real-world scenarios. Interior designs employ modular, flexible furniture (and plenty of writing surfaces) to accommodate varying degrees of group collaboration and future trends.
When Evergreen State College decided to renovate and expand its brutalist-style Purce Lecture Hall, ZGF transformed the existing facility from an inwardly-focused, steeply-tiered, fixed-seat lecture style environment into a flexible, student-centered active learning space that reflects the campus culture of innovation. The design retains the building’s largest lecture hall and three other gently-tiered lecture halls, while adding two large flip classrooms, two smaller flat floor classrooms and an active rotunda.
Informal learning spaces
Common areas must now include a thoughtful mix of cafés and coffee shops, open study lounges and enclosed study spaces, small nooks and end-of-hall corridors, outdoor spaces and functional landscaping. Dedicated makers spaces also invite students to continue learning and interacting outside the classroom – from ideation and design to display and demonstration. With growing emphasis on melding “making” and “learning,” these informal spaces can make up as much as 12 percent of the total building.
In the design of Washington State University’s The SPARK: Academic Innovation Hub, ZGF created a network of flexible, technology-driven learning environments connected to a central commons, which also serves as a public presentation and event space. The 83,295 SF facility offers a variety of classroom types – formal and informal, large group and small group, individual and active, problem-based and makers spaces – to provide choice and flexibility. Classroom spaces are balanced with a Starbucks café, a variety of lounges including a digital marketplace featuring stadium-style seating, a student skills development studio and tutoring spaces, a faculty innovation studio, IT help desk and hoteling style faculty offices.
Combined teaching and research labs
The collocation of teaching and research is effective at schools where teaching is the primary focus, but where research is also conducted. This trend is also being driven by industry partnerships that call for cross-disciplinary spaces dedicated to innovation. In exchange for funding, industry partners gain access to shared lab space, incubator space, equipment and talent.
Dynamic, flexible, modular designs – such as teaching labs with add-on modules, combined modules that make up “research zones,” or open spaces that can be partitioned by sliding doors – can help strike a balance between optimizing these spaces for today and enabling future growth.
ZGF designed the Biorenewables Complex to showcase the state of Iowa’s and Iowa State University’s shared commitment to cutting-edge sustainable energy and materials research. The 244,300 SF complex integrates research and teaching laboratories, classrooms, offices, meeting and support space connected by a central atrium to optimize collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas in a single transparent, daylit facility. The complex creates a hub for student, faculty and visitor activity, while establishing front door for the campus’ high-profile program.