While STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) may be described as a trend, they’re anything but a finicky fad. As predicted, STEM is only picking up steam in K-12 education. Fritz Edelstein, producer of the education internet newsletter Fritzwire, puts “Expanding STEM efforts” third in his list of 13 education trends in 2015.

Naturally, this raises questions for educators: How is STEM affecting classroom and school design and renovation? How can schools build or retrofit space to accommodate STEM curricula within budgetary constraints? Where does a district or school begin, especially if it’s playing catch-up?

Know the Goal

First, keep the essence of the STEM initiative, rather than creating a “perfect” environment, as the focal point. The goal is to inspire students to inquire, think, investigate and innovate in teams. No matter what field students pursue, these skills are essential to our future workforce, says Anne Jolly, author of Team-to-Teach:

• Problem-Solving
• Innovative Thinking
• Communications
• Productive Teamwork
• Generating Multiple Ideas
• Decision-Making

Start Small, Build Up


Next, get a sense of the type of STEM (or STEAM) program your school will implement initially. Or, if you already have a STEM program, how do you want it to grow? Let the method and scope of STEM teaching drive classroom layout. STEM can be taught in only one classroom or one subject, such as math or science, or it can be taught closely integrated, with teachers of various subjects planning together. It can be integrated throughout the whole school, or as an elective or after-school program.

Also consider your school’s STEM entry point. When we think of STEM, we often think middle school and high school, robotics and chemistry. One blogger at the online education forum, We Are Teachers, writes:

“Too often, STEM education begins with a disjoined introduction to engineering and technology concepts starting in middle school. And while any exposure to STEM is good, research study after research study on STEM education has shown that kids who experience STEM early through hands-on learning are the ones who will be best equipped to develop a strong understanding of STEM concepts as they get older.”

She goes on to say that with the advent of The Common Core along with the new Next Generation Science Standards, teachers have access to solid, research-based curricular guidelines for STEM education.

Start with Space Design

The best architects and designers of K-12 STEM spaces today, understand what real-life STEM programs look and sound like. STEM classrooms are adaptable, flexible, mobile and ergonomic. Educator Anne Jolly provides a peek.

“Prepare yourself for noisy, exuberant classrooms where multiple right answers abound and failure is regarded as a positive step toward discovery and successful solutions. Get ready for kids to work closely together, using hands-on methods to solve real-world problems … give them enough room to become creative, innovative, critical thinkers.”

Some classroom designers prefer the “three room” approach: Room One is the classroom where students focus primarily on math and engineering. Room Two is the lab, where the focus is science and technology. Room Three is the commons, where students freely collaborate and learn from each other. Because STEM is generally an integrated project-based learning program, students need small-group areas to plan and discuss their projects.

The best architects and designers of K-12 STEM spaces today, understand what real-life STEM programs look and sound like. STEM classrooms are adaptable, flexible, mobile and ergonomic. Educator Anne Jolly provides a peek.

James Biehle, is an architect specializing in school science facilities and author of the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, Second Edition. He says STEM’s influence has literally changed how designers label classrooms. For example, in the past, classroom “book” learning was separate from lab learning. Today, the term “lab/classroom” is used to describe a combination space where students can move from discussion to hands-on work and back during a single class period.

Technically – and ideally – speaking, that means science/lab/classrooms with a minimum of 60 square feet per student and a maximum of 24 students. He’s also an advocate of adding a CAD lab for the engineering lab/classroom aspect of STEM.

Another important feature is student project spaces that are readily accessible from the science classrooms, as well as access to the outdoors. That access is essential for students to test creations and display them, without the limitations of walls and ceilings. Recently, one community wisely kicked back an initial new school design to the architectural firm, in part, because the science teacher strongly objected to having no access to the school’s “backyard” – a spacious, open field and forest.

Granted, many districts cannot entertain building new STEM spaces or retrofitting existing classrooms anytime soon. If that describes your school, there are ways to create a STEM lab on a budget. A few examples include adding white boards for student collaboration, upgrading the teacher’s podium to one on casters with an adjustable height, and using a file-sharing platform, like Google Drive.

Add Technology

Ideally, “technology should be everywhere” in the STEM classroom, says James Biehle. Tablet-type devices should travel with students and connect to a wireless network. The engineering aspect of the program should include CAD with screens, printers (including 3D), and plotters.

Connectively is key, and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) will likely be a cornerstone of 21st Century learning. Students need the ability to instantly connect with global data and other resources. Optimized STEM classrooms allow students to have power for their computers or tablet devices, as well as Wi-Fi.


Where to start? Download a copy of our STEM guide, it contains images of suggested environments.

Download our STEM Guide

Add STEM-Friendly Furnishings

For maximum longevity, invest in furniture that is modular and sturdy. The extra cost – and functionality – is worth it.

SEATING: The days of traditional, single-function classroom furniture are dwindling. The STEM classroom has students standing, sitting on stools, rolling on chairs, and casual lounging to collaborate. Above all, classroom seating must offer a range of movement, positions and functions.

DESKS AND TABLES: Project-based learning requires desks or tables capable of being arranged into compact pods that fit six to eight students. Having the flexibility and ability to rearrange the desk for uses in multiple ways is key. For example, desktops that taper back to front (think pie shape) allow for a tight circle or individual arrangements.

Table design and materials have certainly expanded to accommodate STEM. Work surfaces can now stand up to chemicals and heat, and height varies, all without compromising a large work area and stability.

STORAGE: Most of the student projects within the STEM environment will take place over more than one class period. It’s essential to have space to safely leave or store in-progress projects. And, educators need mobile storage for organizing hands-on project materials and tools, as well as mobile units to house projectors and computers for presentations.

No matter where you are in the STEM planning process, it’s clear that STEM is here to stay. Stay tuned to this blog as we continue to write about more ways that STEM is making its lasting mark on classroom design.



“Constructing STEM Facilities,” by Project Kaleidoscope, Association of American Colleges & Universities website.
“Expert advice on effective STEM education for elementary school teachers,” by Erin MacPherson, We Are Teachers website.
“How to Get Your School Ready for STEM This Year,” by Anne Jolly, MindShift website, Aug. 20, 2013.
“Project-Based Learning. Creating Learning Spaces for a STEM Environment,” by James Biehle, School Planning & Management, Dec. 2013.
“Trends in Education,” by Fritz Edelstein, School Planning & Management, January 2015.