3 New Ideas To Help Universities Attract And Empower STEM Students

To empower the kind of graduates we need, colleges need to drastically rethink the shape of their learning environments.


Projections released by the U.S. Department of Education paint a bright future for jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. As populations grow, natural resources diminish, disease prevention and treatment become more complex, and evolutionary and universal mysteries continue to be explored, science and technology will remain critical to expanding human knowledge and solving the challenges of the future.


Opportunities abound for STEM graduates today, but preparing enough STEM graduates to drive the scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations of tomorrow will be a daunting task for colleges and universities across the country. The U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts that in the next decade, we will need approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than we will produce at our current rate. Currently, about 300,000 graduates obtain bachelor and associate degrees in STEM fields every year. In order to create this new workforce of 1 million additional STEM experts, that number needs to increase by 100,000 annually.

The challenge is clear: Universities need to attract more students to STEM programs. But once these students have enrolled, another challenge begins to unfold: Only about 40% of students who enroll in STEM programs graduate with STEM degrees. The remaining 60% switch to non-STEM fields or drop out of college entirely.

To address the challenges of attraction and retention, educational institutions throughout the country are trading in traditional teaching methods for new techniques. These new methods move beyond a model where students passively listen to lectures and cram for tests, to methods that engage students in activities, enable collaboration across STEM disciplines, and encourage students to use their hands just as much as their heads.

With these new approaches to learning and teaching come new approaches to designing learning environments. These new spaces are obliterating the stereotypes associated with traditional STEM classrooms and fostering the type of creative brilliance that can help us educate and arm those 1 million new STEM graduates.

Here are three ideas every university should consider when rethinking their STEM to better recruit and retain students for the future.


Get Out of the Basement And Show Off

Traditionally, STEM classrooms, specifically laboratories, were housed in the core or basement of a building. These underground “lairs” were somewhat uninhabitable to those who had to use them. They had few windows, hardly any natural light, and the overall environment felt more institutional than educational. For those who didn’t use them, the laboratories felt untouchable and intimidating, the science happening within just too complex to understand. But countless studies show that the design of classroom environments influence students’ motivation and learning, and universities are seeing the value in letting the student body become more spectators in the science process. From a design perspective, we use the term putting science on display pretty regularly. The general idea is to place science classrooms and laboratories in public, high-traffic areas. Instead of concrete walls, expansive floor-to-ceiling windows allow passerby to celebrate science and watch it unfold. This helps make science an approachable, open process, and, as an added benefit, it gives universities the chance to show off their cool science equipment.

The University of Buffalo has embraced this idea with its Clinical Translational Research Center. Embedded in the same building as Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute, the CTRC uses interior glass throughout the building to show science in an open, transparent process.

Embrace Startup Culture

A key component of successful STEM programs is experimentation. If you look at the most successful technology startups over the last 10 years, very few started in a formal academic settings. More often than not, they started in garages or coffee shops, places with more sofas than fixed bench space. There’s a lot STEM learning environments can learn from these spaces, specifically in how they encourage free thinking and experimentation.

Taking inspiration from startups, our team at CannonDesign is seeing an increase in makerspace, hackerspace, and innovation hubs within STEM buildings. These spaces serve a pretty basic purpose: nurturing creativity, encouraging experimentation, and stimulating intellectual inquiry in an informal setting. They don’t act exclusively as labs, garages, or workshops, but they do include many of the tools found in these space (i.e., 3-D printers, welding machines, computers, building materials, etc.). The University of Utah saw the value in such spaces with its new Lassonde Studios Entrepreneurial building, which features a 20,000-square-foot making/planning/hacking space to foster interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary “mash-ups.”

Infuse Appropriate Technology Into Academic Environments

Millennials and generation Z grew up in a digital world and expect to take full advantage of technology in every aspect of life, especially college. However, technology hasn’t revolutionized education the way it has other industries. STEM learning environments can be leading examples for how using technology can enhance learning by making it more engaging and accessible.


The flipped classroom is a good example of an effective use of technology for enhanced learning. The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model that has students watch video lectures and complete homework prior to class. Doing this creates richer face-to-face interactions when students are actually in class; instead of listening to a lecture, they spend their time asking questions, participating in hands-on activities, and even getting involved in university research efforts. On the most dramatic end of the spectrum, some universities are using virtual reality, simulation, and gaming to inspire and educate future STEM innovators.

These tools allow students to quite literally take part in technology. CAVE environments, which are rooms wrapped in screens that project 3-D virtual environments, allow students to immerse themselves in a setting and actually interact with what they’re seeing. From an infrastructure design standpoint, these technology-rich spaces require a building that provides enhanced server space, room for complex computing platforms, and the power and cooling sources to keep everything up and running.

One interesting technology trend our team is also seeing is a decrease in dedicated computer labs. Prior to the days of constant connectivity, computer labs acted as the hub of higher-education buildings. But today, 90% of students own a laptop, 86% of students own a smartphone, and 47% of students own a tablet. The need to access university-owned equipment is dwindling, and the need to plug in personal devices and work anywhere is the new norm.

There’s no denying universities need to prove themselves up to the challenge of attracting and retaining the much needed next generation of STEM professionals. How they choose to design their STEM learning environments can play a big role in helping them meet this challenge and exceed current projections.


About the author

Stephen Blair leads CannonDesign’s global science and technology practice, focused on helping academic and corporate institutions design solutions that turn challenges into opportunities for success.