Design Impact: Rethinking the STEM Building

October 04, 2016

The most successful colleges and universities we know with new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) buildings have not merely built new buildings, they have rethought them from the ground up. These institutions have radically redesigned them — either building entirely new structures or dramatically renovating existing ones — in ways that have improved professors’ teaching and students’ learning processes. The impacts, which EYP has tracked during the last 10 years and chronicled in our formal research studies, have been eye-opening in four dimensions.

  • Increasing student enrollment, retention, and interest in STEM majors

  • Attracting new faculty to campus

  • Creating better places to teach and thus enhancing teaching

  • Creating better places for students to learn and prepare for post-college working environment that emphasizes team collaboration and interdisciplinary research

For example, the new science center at the College of the Holy Cross that opened in 2010 appears to have helped more than double its number of students majoring in chemistry.

Student enrollment in the Chemistry program almost doubled in the 4 years after the facility was opened. What’s more, early results show that the center has helped the college attract and retain STEM professors. Our research found that in the three years after the center opened, Holy Cross increased the percentage of first-choice candidates hired to 78% from 59% (2001–2008).

Clinton, New York-based Hamilton College, which has 1,850 students, increased applications for admission by nearly 500 a year on average after it opened its new science center in 2005, our research shows. While several factors may have contributed to the increase, our research study suggests that the new Taylor Science Center had a large effect. It also appears to have helped increase enrollment in first-level science and math courses by an average of 150 students and boost the number of STEM graduates by more than 40 per year. As well, since the center’s opening an increasing percentage of Hamilton students have majored in the sciences, from 30% of all majors in 2006 to 40% by 2012.

But is this increase significant?

Did more U.S. Students pursue STEM degrees in that period? In fact, Hamilton outperformed the national increase in STEM degrees awarded. The college increased its number of science and math majors 31% between 2007–2014 (after the building opened). Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics on bachelor’s degrees conferred at all U.S. degree-granting institutions indicates a 33% increase in degrees in the natural sciences and mathematics between 2005–06 and 2011–12. However, at least half that gain was due to an increase in total degrees conferred. That means that Hamilton’s increase in STEM majors (with a steady number of total degrees conferred) exceeds the national trend almost twofold.

So, how did they do it? They did so by reinventing their existing facilities to strategically incorporate five design elements — all radically different from those that have shaped science buildings over the last century.