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STEM education can be implemented in kindergarten, especially with the right space

February 28, 2018

By Diego Barrera

No need to wait until high school for STEM education—how the right design can enhance STEM opportunities in K-8

As February comes to a close, we’re wrapping up #CTEMonth—a public awareness campaign that recognizes and celebrates the value of Career and Technical Education (CTE) and highlights the achievements and accomplishments of CTE programs across the nation. At Stantec, we are proud to partner with our local communities to develop innovative CTE facilities for both higher education and K-12 learners.

For many learners, the interest in CTE develops early with an interest in science and math. An education focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is often the first step to a career in the many fields offered through CTE programs nationwide.

The central common area at Prestwick STEM Academy encourages students to mobilize and “learn anywhere.”

My team works closely with our K-12 clients to identify the educational needs of the community and how the school can best benefit the students of the community. With Little Elm Independent School District, the vision was to create unique learning opportunities through authentic and relevant experience. Ultimately, this led us to creating Prestwick STEM Academy, a school seeped in STEM education.

Prestwick STEM Academy started as a vision by the leaders of Little Elm ISD to introduce a STEM curriculum and 21st Century learning to the historically rural, but now suburban, community and redefine learning to create future global leaders. This academy was also an opportunity for Little Elm ISD to relieve exceeding capacity of its elementary and middle school facilities by creating a K-8 academy. With a limited budget, the goal was to serve 800 students in a compact two-story, 94,000-square-foot facility. 

All K-12 projects start with a visioning process—sometimes the client does this on their own, and sometimes this process is facilitated by my team at Stantec. Either way, we always encourage conversations with the community to discuss their wants and needs.

For Prestwick STEM Academy, the visioning process created several clear goals for the academy. The most important goal we identified was that learning should happen anywhere and anytime, by providing real world opportunities in a comfortable, safe, and community-focused environment. As the design developed, the principal, teachers, and district’s leadership developed a concept for how learning would happen at Prestwick—students would be divided into learning houses. These houses would provide varied kinds of environments to accommodate different learning activities and different learners. 

Many times, schools want several specialized learning spaces in addition to their typical classrooms, but most of the time there simply isn’t the square footage or budget to create each individualized learning space separately. Learning houses (or learning pods) create specialized learning opportunities that are constantly changing and evolving to best meet the needs of the group. No one teacher or class owns the space. Instead, teachers collaborate and coordinate to allow students to use the space that best suits the task at hand.

This conceptual diagram outlines how the space in each learning house can be utilized.

Although the overall layout of each house is virtually identical to the example above, each house was customized to provide age-appropriate learning without sacrificing long-term flexibility. Six teachers with six classes of students share each learning house. This requires a high level of coordination among the teachers, as they rotate throughout the day through the learning house:

  • Two direct instruction spaces accommodate traditional lecture activates, and the two spaces can be combined into a larger space via a foldable partition. 
  • The wet/dry labs can also be combined into a larger space and serve different purposes depending on the age group. In the elementary level grades, these accommodate hands-on activates like art and other messy activates. For the middle school grades, the labs are set up as proper science labs with seven stations to serve 28 students.
  • The large collaboration/project area allows students to work on team projects. 
  • Four small group spaces distributed throughout the house provide additional spaces for students to work in teams. These small group spaces vary in their level of privacy to accommodate different activates and different learners.
  • All the spaces within each learning house are visually connected, allowing students freedom to choose where to work, while giving all six teachers direct supervision of any space in the learning house. 

I have visited Prestwick STEM Academy several times since it opened its doors, and I am always amazed by the vibrancy of this school. Every time I visit, the learning houses look different. Student projects are displayed throughout the school, and I can see projects in the works as the furniture and the spaces are rearranged to accommodate each project. It is inspiring to see the student work. It’s equally inspiring to see the passionate teachers guide young learners and encourage them to take their education into their own hands. As I walk through the school, I feel quite certain that the students will be capable future leaders succeeding in the careers of the future. 

  • Diego Barrera

    Diego has more than a decade of experience bringing architecture and education together.

    Contact Diego
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