In a series of recent K-12 projects, designers worked with educators to push the envelope of STEM facility design to develop flexible, indoor-outdoor facilities that support different modes of learning and each school’s larger mission.
Innovation doesn’t have a standard operating procedure; invention and achievement often require unorthodox thinking, winding paths and unexpected inspiration. To develop the leaders of tomorrow, science and technology classrooms need to move beyond the prototypical approach to support outside-the-box thinking with adaptable spaces for different types of learning.
STEM environments can be designed to bring together different perspectives and to inspire young learners to develop thinking skills. “The environments should help students think about problem seeking in order to problem solve,” says LPA Director of K-12 Kate Mraw. “It’s the innately human desire to solve problems and stay curious that fosters innovation.”
On several recent K-12 STEM and STEAM projects, LPA designers worked with educators to develop facilities that support the school’s specific mission, personalizing the spaces to meet the larger goals. In each case, LPA’s design approach began by exploring the school’s learning process and then designing around it, developing adaptable lab spaces, connections to the outdoors and spaces for self-reflection and community that play a large role in learner development.
“It’s about providing spaces that allow for the unpredictable moments of thinking — quiet spaces, views of nature, calm or lower-lighting spaces,” Mraw says. “We can provide students with the agency to use those spaces for unpredictable insight, allowing young brains to connect with the unconscious patterns of thinking.”
Each of the recent LPA projects earned national design awards of excellence in planning and design for STEM from Learning By Design, reflecting their ability to elevate the educators’ very specific programs and priorities.
The open plan allows for collaborative areas to be transformed into teaching spaces or labs.
Flexible and Collaborative Learning Environments
At Alamo Heights High School, the challenge was adding to an existing STEM program and making it fit within a 70-year-old campus. As the school grew from its midcentury roots, the layout of the campus had become more crowded and ill-defined. The addition of the STEM facility, which includes a rocketry lab and maker spaces, was part of a larger makeover that reimagined old buildings and refocused the school around a series of courtyards.
The STEM facility, which includes rocketry and maker spaces, was part of a larger campus makeover.
The courtyards were refurbished to feel more like college quads; the science program was reworked to be more versatile and nimbler. Digital co-labs, quiet breakout spaces and a system of plug-and-play building blocks were meant to adjust to new lesson plans or changing curricula. Fashioned around a learning clusters model, the STEM space offers more ways for students and teachers to collaborate, as well as easy access to brainstorm on the lawn.
Once crowded and ill-defined, the 70-year-old campus is now organized around a series of courtyards.
“Flexibility is inherent in the facility’s design,” said Project Designer Jim Oppelt. “The open plan and layout allow for collaborative areas to be transformed into teaching spaces or labs to meet the future needs of the program. It’s all about getting the students to learn from each other.”
The third floor contains engineering space, including a fabrication lab.
Building Self-Expression and Pride
The three-story Student Innovation Center expanded educational opportunities and addressed many of the unique needs and circumstances of the Samueli Academy, a nonprofit offering education and community services for foster youth. Complementary spaces for reflection and engagement outside the rigor of a lab or classroom are a core part of the design. The environments help students better process lessons and promote wellness for the entire student body.
Spaces for reflection and engagement outside of the classroom are a core part of the design.
The campus addition prioritizes student gathering spaces on the ground floor, offering social and community spaces; creating a safe, stable learning environment was a key priority. A series of art studios, flexible classrooms and collaboration spaces for pin-ups form the design pathway on the second floor, while the third floor contains engineering space, including a fabrication lab and additional classrooms.
The Student Innovation Center expands educational opportunities for foster youth.
Wall nooks and diverse meeting spaces nurture and encourage trust and peer relationships among the students. Each student has wall space they can “own” to showcase their projects and foster self-expression in preparation for college admission and career-building.
“We focused on a welcoming space, with visuals that celebrate the students’ work,” says LPA Project Designer Lindsay Hayward. “We wanted to make sure each student felt a sense of pride, belonging and inspiration.”
Open, flexible spaces are varied through shifts in furniture, ceiling height, floor finishes and wall material.
Real-World Learning Environments
Months of work with the community, local businesses and area universities helped develop eSTEM Academy into open, exploratory and eye-catching labs and workspaces, where students gain real-world experience. The facility supports expanded technical and career-focused programs that encourage different types of learning and collaboration.
“Designing with the student in mind pushed the design team toward several educational innovations, without compromising the program offering,” says Project Designer Stephanie Matsuda-Strand.
Robust maker spaces support expanded technical and career-focused programs.
More than simply areas for heads-down work, eSTEM features a multilayered series of connected co-labs and flexible learning environments, with rolling doors that open to the outdoors. Lab spaces are designed to model real-world engagement in STEM careers with hands-on activities including a mock medical center, real hospital beds, blood-draw chairs and virtual cadavers. Open, flexible spaces are delineated by furniture, changes in ceiling height, floor finishes and transparent and operable walls, allowing the space and curricula to evolve.
Outdoor learning spaces provide flexibility for instruction and social gatherings.
Winding pathways inspired by nature weave through the quad, past varied-scaled outdoor learning spaces that provide flexibility for instruction and social gatherings. From an amphitheater to a respite space tucked in the landscape, students have choices indoors and out. One building is oriented to protect the courtyard from strong Santa Ana winds and to provide maximum shade, responding to the hot, dry environment.
“The gathering spaces in the quad were designed to be accessible,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Kari Kikuta. “But most of all, it fosters this sense of community and collective learning, which is important for all types of STEM projects and all students.”
A new arts courtyard includes small group pods, an amphitheater, stage and performance lighting.
Sparking Curiosity and Creativity
At Tarbut V’Torah, a Jewish TK-12 day school, the addition of a new center for the secondary students offered a chance to create a cross-disciplinary space, designed to inspire younger students while engaging teens. Discussions were guided by research that shows the integration of arts with hands-on engineering and maker spaces promotes deeper understanding and more innovative thinking.
Upper-level classrooms connect to a rooftop huddle deck for hands-on learning indoors and out.
“The driver of the design was keeping a child’s perspective in mind,” says Design Director Ozzie Tapia. “We envisioned a building that would spark curiosity and be used in creative ways, maximizing access and meeting all the different definitions of what it meant to make something.”
The two-story, 20,000-square-foot STEAM building was designed to integrate with a new arts courtyard, including small group pods, an amphitheater, stage and evening performance lighting. To encourage expression within larger maker spaces, specially designed huddle zones encourage discussions and presentations for small teams.
Within the large maker spaces, huddle zones encourage discussions and presentations for small teams.
An 8-foot-long concrete workbench table and huddle deck on the roof allow designers and builders to participate in hands-on, project-based learning indoors and out.
Creativity was also enabled by a flexible floor plan. Column-free spaces with concrete floors and overhead electrical systems make it simple to swap machines, integrate new labs or expand art and creative space.
The campus is filled with collaboration spaces and different areas to support multiple types of learning.
Supporting Paths to Entrepreneurial Invention
At TIDE Academy, a new school based in Silicon Valley a block from Meta’s headquarters, a tight 2-acre site is filled with collaboration and design spaces, creating a model for space-constrained urban schools. Stairs and circulation on building exteriors, and garage-style rollup doors, help learning space carry over to the outdoors, preserving space while making the classrooms more connected and open.
Garage-style rollup doors help learning space carry over to the outdoors.
The school wraps around a central tiered courtyard, with 17 distinct learning and collaboration spaces, including huddle rooms and a dojo for meditative learning. The ecosystem underscores themes of empathy and storytelling. Media arts, engineering and robotics are integrated into the 2-acre facility, encouraging different kinds of inquiry and problem solving.
The school wraps around a central tiered courtyard with 17 distinct learning and collaboration spaces.
The school’s focus on interdisciplinary and inquiry-based study, the “known and unknown,” reflects, in part, the ethos of the neighboring tech firms and entrepreneurs.
“We wanted to create something that radiated an attitude of enterprise and invention,” said TIDE Design Director Helen Pierce. “Tech is the tool, but we want to foster creative thinking and a more holistic viewpoint.”