Enhancing STEM Education Through School Design

10/07/2019  |  By Sophia Tarkhan, AIA, LEED AP
Facilities
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Rendering Courtesy of Cooper Carry Architects

Schools rooted in STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) instruction are sprouting up across the Southeast. To provide students with the comprehensive education needed to excel in these growing disciplines, these schools not only require specific curriculums and tools, but also environments designed to foster students’ success.

At Atlanta-based design firm Cooper Carry, the architects in the K-12 Education studio are currently working on multiple projects that push the envelope for STEM education, focusing on promoting more collaboration and innovation within the schools.

When asked to design the new Innovation Academy in historic Alpharetta, Ga., the first STEM-based school in Fulton County, the design firm knew this would become a one-of-a-kind experience for the more than 1,500 students who will attend the academy when it opens in Fall 2021.

This isn’t like the school you attended. In order to design a forward-thinking setting that is uniquely its own while still complimenting the look and feel of the surrounding neighborhood, visioning workshops were held with local students, parents, teachers, school administrators in key curriculum roles and board members. These first meetings and initial planning stages established that the school’s design should advocate for STEM-based learning through collaborative, team-based areas as well as flexible, modular spaces to facilitate the seamless blending of disciplines.

To create an incubator of burgeoning STEM professionals and future industry leaders, Cooper Carry’s K-12 studio also consulted with our Higher Education and Science + Tech studios. Together, they endeavored to model the forthcoming Innovation Academy with a range of design features and technologies to forge a space that will adequately prepare students for their bright futures and career paths in fast-evolving STEM fields.

No More Static Space

Of particular note, the overall design concept was conceived during the workshops in which Cooper Carry took part in collaborative discussions with innovative teachers and forward-thinking students.  With the understanding that students learn and socialize differently from previous generations, the school’s nearly 250,000 square feet utilizes a three-level atrium that will encompass both the media center and cafeteria, also known as the “touchdown” space. This light-filled, gathering space will serve as a coffee shop microcosm, where students can study, take breaks, enjoy a meal and intermingle with peers. This multipurpose arena will be the heart of the facility, acting as a study hall, commons area and lecture hall all rolled into one.

Differing extensively from the traditional configuration of these kinds of spaces, which are usually wholly separate and designed for a singular purpose, the “touchdown commons” allows for cooperation between students and offers unfiltered access to necessary tech tools in the media center. The atrium will also house a projection screen that can be used to showcase TED Talks, while moveable furniture can be rearranged to accommodate robotics practice runs.

Extending beyond the interior, the central common space spills out into an outdoor makerspace and open-air courtyard surrounded by engineering labs, allowing students to flow freely between the various zones and cultivate a learning environment attuned to their own preferences. With learning styles varying between students, it’s imperative to offer opportunities to pick and choose how they would like to consume information and put it into practice.

Multiples and Modules

Just as quickly as technology advances, courses may change throughout the year, or from year to year, which is why the facility is designed to be easily reconfigurable to meet new demanding curriculum evolution. A classroom can become an office or vice versa at Innovation Academy. With newfangled devices and smartphone apps popping up daily, it was only right to ensure that flexibility and adaptability of space are prioritized in the design. Almost all the rooms at the school are being constructed using multiples of the same dimensions (11 feet wide by 30 feet deep which is conducive to laboratory design), enabling these spaces to be easily converted for alternative use. While a high school typically has very specific uses for very specific spaces, the educators at Innovation Academy can maximize the usability of a space to correspond with changing needs on a day-to-day basis. 

If more space is needed to host a lab, intermediary stud walls can be modified more easily than a wall made of cinder block. If the school experiences an influx of new students and has an excess of office space, those offices can simply be converted into extra classrooms. This state-of-the-art adaptability supports the functionality of the school and broadens the extent to which students can learn in a comfortable environment. Also, the modularity of the design aligns well with the inflexibility of limited K-12 budgets, offering the ability to restructure layout without the costs associated with a redesign.

Innovation on Display

At the Innovation Academy, cross-disciplinary work is amplified by removing walls and barriers — literally. Glass partitions make learning transparent between classrooms, fostering an environment of inquisitiveness that improves focus by seeing other students learn. The glass also allows more natural daylight to pour in from the outside, which is linked to various health benefits and boosts cognitive focus. Instruction can also happen across classes with operable, garage door-style walls which open to allow multiple classes to convene and collaborate on a common topic.

In an effort to make the learning process even more visible and transparent, teachers at Innovation Academy will not have their own assigned classrooms and instead revolve meeting locations throughout the building. This allows students the opportunity to switch up their environment, which has been proven to increase productivity.

Simply put, design informs our actions every day. The angles and contours of a building not only determine people’s movement through a space but can also influence people’s moods and behaviors. In the case of educational design, achieving ideal student performance isn’t solely determined by the quality of the curriculum or an instructor ⁠— the built environment also has a powerful effect.

As advancements in technology continue to permeate our daily lives, the status-quo school blueprint of yesterday is bending to meet students’ changing needs. When planning STEM schools, architects are challenged to rethink designs and find innovative ways to complement new curriculums and tech tools, while also incorporating flexibility for classrooms to continue to evolve and adapt for years to come.

Sophia Tarkhan is an Associate Principal in design firm Cooper Carry’s K-12 Education studio, striving to translate the owner’s visions into the built environment in the public and private sector for K-12 Schools project types. With more than 20 years of experience in the building industry as a project architect, program manager (owner’s representative) and construction manager, Tarkhan’s first-hand experience in the different building disciplines gives her an edge in negotiating through the design and construction process. She is a registered architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), of the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI) and is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP).
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