The State of STEM: Aligning Design with Pedagogy
Mark Thaler in Education Research, New York

The Dwight-Englewood School. Image © Gensler

Discussions of “STEM” have been on the rise for the better part of the last decade. Pick up a newspaper, magazine, or educational journal and you will likely read that increasing student engagement in the STEM disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – is considered critical to the development of a competitive U.S. workforce. But the question of how to best teach and engage students in STEM, and at what point in the education process it should start, remains largely unanswered. While STEM represents a distinct set of subjects, its application to curriculum development and facility design varies widely, especially at the high school level. And through our research in partnership with the Dwight-Englwood School, an independent Pre-K through 12 school in Englewood, New Jersey, we have learned that successful STEM teaching is much more than the sum of its parts.

Starting in 2010, Gensler and Dwight-Englewood, led by Head of School Dr. Rodney De Jarnett and Upper School Principal Joseph Algrant, set out to investigate the "state of STEM" by touring 13 recently constructed science education facilities in the Northeastern United States. The team met with educators to discuss their curricula and to understand how their facilities supported academic approaches. What we found, for the most part, was that while the educators were at or ahead of the curve in thinking about integration, their facilities were gleaming new versions of old design paradigms, characterized by long corridors and compartmentalization of departments. This approach to organization, while most efficient from a space planning perspective, is an impediment to the cross-disciplinary connections STEM is meant to promote.

As Dr. De Jarnett explains in his interview for the latest issue of Dialogue, "I don’t think of learning in narrow silos like an English Department or a History Department, rather I think more broadly – in this case of a Humanities Department. Can students really learn literature well without also including the history of the period when that piece of literature was written? And as a mathematician, I just can’t imagine science and mathematics being taught in isolation. You want to present these together in an integrated, experiential approach where students work to solve meaningful problems that drive them to learn the things they need to know to find a solution.”

These findings inspired us to dig further and identify elemental aspects of the best STEM education approaches, themes that could be equally and simultaneously applied to both curriculum development and design. The result of these explorations can be found in our new research paper titled The ABC's of STEM, which defines and describes the elemental concepts of STEM through three major ideas:

A - Everything Is Connected

Understanding that all STEM disciplines are intertwined is integral to creating spaces that promote cross-pollination and communication among different fields of study. Fluid connections between disciplines encourage students to make productive connections between subjects, increase the chance for faculty/student interactions, and encourage more productive student gatherings outside the classroom.

B - Anytime Is a Teaching Moment

The most successful STEM facilities engage students through a variety of mediums and at all times of the school day. Design can play an active role in this engagement by integrating the subjects that students are learning in their physical environments. The building itself can be a teaching tool, exposing its structure and systems to promote discussions around engineering, sustainability, and the relationship between the built and natural environments.

C - Learning Happens Through Doing

Successful STEM facilities encourage an active, hands-on approach to learning and teaching. This comes as research continues to uncover the ineffectiveness of rote or one-way learning to engage students and convey complex concepts. Students need more laboratory time and more experimentation. But it’s not just about labs. Hybrid spaces that adapt to changing needs and promote active engagement with the learning environment are critical to successful and productive learning.

The findings in our paper focus on design strategies informed by promising new approaches to STEM education. These strategies realign education spaces in support of new needs and approaches. But it’s important to note that the success of these strategies will require the continued evolution of teaching approaches to complement the changing design of classrooms and education spaces. To truly realize the potential of these strategies, teachers must be knowledgeable and enabled to draw connections between the disciplines. They must search for hands-on, teachable moments at the times and in the spaces they happen best.

As of this writing, we are in the midst of putting all this research into practice: the design of a new STEM facility for Dwight-Englewood. The process is uniquely integrative, with educators' work being influenced by design and designers finding inspiration in curriculum. The goal is to create a facility that fosters a cross-disciplinary community but is flexible enough to change over time. To again quote Dr. De Jarnett: "We may be the first generation of adults ever to admit to ourselves that we don’t really have a clue about what our children will be doing when they’re our age. The children we’re educating today will reach the peak of their careers in 2040 to 2050. And those who forecast change suggest that 80 percent of our current students will be in jobs and fields that don’t exist today."

A pretty heady challenge, stay tuned...

Mark Thaler is one of Gensler’s Education Practice Area leaders in the New York office, develops education projects at all scales, from classroom to campus. Mark has a passion for creating learning spaces that inspire, and collaborates with his clients to create these environments. Interested in Gensler’s education research? Send Mark a note at
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