What is it?
The STEM Ideas Factory is a flexible space for group and social learning within a new multidisciplinary laboratory complex.
The 221m² space is designed to be used for a variety of different activities, including group projects, showcase research, student-led conferences, and in particular, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) outreach activities.
The STEM Lab building (5314m²) is a suite of modern, appropriately equipped, laboratories created to significantly enhance the quality and breadth of provision in STEM subjects.
The multifunctional teaching laboratories were designed to exploit synergies between subjects and align with the university’s multidisciplinary research agenda.
The strategic intent is that the facilities will enhance the student experience by:
- Creating space and infrastructure to support student projects
- Creating a ‘home’ for STEM
- Delivering a quality practical laboratory experience to larger student cohorts
- Providing the ability to remain agile and flexible to respond to market demands
- Permitting increased student numbers (+10%) and new programmes in subjects such as bio-engineering
Prior to this each subject had its own laboratories and students worked in isolation from other disciplines.
The aim of the space is to facilitate a blended learning model and ‘encourage students to learn by conversation not isolation.’
Partnership working was central to the design of the building and also to the operation of the Ideas Factory space.
The space has done away with the notion of individual ownership by specific disciplines. There is a building manager and one full time technician and timetabling is done via a central booking system. Support staff with discipline specific skills often work in the building but all space is shared.
The pro-vice chancellor for teaching acted as the project sponsor and there was also an academic champion and student programme representatives.
Extensive workshops and focus groups incorporating all stakeholders were held throughout the process (usually every four to six weeks).
The development process included:
- Workshops to identify the needs
- Development of a model
- Building and equipping the space
- Testing and simulation to see what students were actually doing in the space
- Minor changes-to address practical issues
- Further improvements and adjustment as an ongoing process
The Ideas Factory has been designed as a flexible space to facilitate cross discipline collaboration.
It is bright and spacious and glass internal walls increase its visibility and encourage students to use it as a drop in space.
It is available 24/7 when not booked for a subject specific teaching event.
Spaces work best when used as per the intended design.
This video wall is a great asset when used with a collaborative room layout but makes a poor presentation screen if students are seated in rows.
Facilities within the Ideas Factory include:
- Five metre video wall
- Three interactive touch screens
- Group seating
- Comfy seating
- Touch down areas
- ReVIEW lecture capture
- Digital timetabling screen by the entrance doors to identify any timetabled activities
Student evaluation has been extremely positive both about the STEM building as a whole (eg the opportunity to use equipment in a wide range of laboratories) and about the Ideas Factory.
Designing multifunctional space isn't easy. The STEM Ideas Factory works well in many configurations but it can be difficult to see the bottom of the video wall when the cohort is very large or seated in rows.
There is a need to control the amount of solar gain room through the use of blinds.
Due to the multifunctional nature of the room there has been much debate about the balance of use between timetabled activities and informal study. This led to a review of activity and the need to define a set of principles to guide use.
Occupation and evaluation has provided the opportunity to review the flexible furniture requirements in the room and additional items have been purchased to enhance the user experience. This includes collaborative tables, comfy seating, bookshelves, a coffee bar and beanbags.
Don't dismiss more traditional approaches. One of the requests from the evaluation was for whiteboards in the space.
Change management and transition
The aim is to ensure that the learning space will enhance collaboration and cross-disciplinary learning and this relies on academics booking the space to use it in this way.
Some interviewees talked about it being a creative and interactive space and described lecturing in the Ideas Factory as 'misuse' of the space.
The university views changing practice as an ongoing project and estimates it may take up to three years to fully realise the vision for the space as awareness of its availability and affordances grows.
For more on each of the topics mentioned in this case study see the UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit.