Building for the future with STEAM

Independent schools are creating STEAM centres that not only enhance learning, but become their own teaching tool, Jo Golding finds

Many schools are now offering a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) education to pupils, with interdisciplinary lessons that embrace skills like problem-solving, collaboration and creativity.

But some schools have taken this further by building their own STEAM centres, emphasising the idea that this type of learning is paramount for pupils’ futures.

But why choose STEAM as a priority in the first place? Douglas Robb, headmaster of Gresham’s, a coeducational school in Norfolk, says the learning approach offers more freedom. “A-level is deep in one way, but it’s also narrowing in another,” he says.

“It doesn’t really allow that breadth of interest for children. If a child is making choices for sixth form and they say they want to do art, chemistry and a language, we end up saying ‘why do you want to do that?’ and ‘that doesn’t lead to anything’.

What STEAM is saying is that there should be creativity in science and there should be rigour in creativity

“What STEAM is saying is that there should be creativity in science and there should be rigour in creativity. The two things are not in conflict in any way.”

Angharad Holloway, head of Talbot Heath, a girls’ school in Bournemouth, agrees, saying when she was looking for an educational model that would prepare young people for the future, she looked to STEAM learning.

“Design thinking, creative thinking, material science, coding, electronics and digital proficiency was at the heart of the skillset that our young people would need going forward,” she says.

Floor and wall projections mean learning becomes more interactive at Talbot Heath

Learning, with added magic

Talbot Heath’s STEAM Hub has been up and running since September 2019. Construction took 15 months and it cost £7.6m.

Holloway was asked by the school’s governors to create an education model for the future. She thought about how she would staff the model, the curriculum she would deliver and the building she would need, which resulted in the STEAM Hub being created.

The hub has a large auditorium which can be transformed into different areas such as lecture theatres, a virtual reality space, a performance area and more.

Holloway says: “The design took a huge amount of thought. I wanted walls that could disappear, retractable seating and I wanted it to be acoustically soundproof. I wanted to be able to project onto all the surfaces, so in the middle section you can project onto the wall and floor, which then becomes interactive.

“Nobody had done anything like this before. It’s got quite a magical quality to it.”

Holographic equipment has been installed, which has never been used in educational contexts before. Design features such as LED lighting, digital light installations and provocative furniture have been included for pupils to learn from.

“The building becomes a teaching resource,” says Holloway. “I’ve been amazed and thrilled at just how effective that’s been.”

Nobody had done anything like this before. It’s got quite a magical quality to it

The solar-panelled hub includes different studios for art, textiles, graphic design, photography, and a design workshop with height adjustable work benches, so all pupils – from three-year-olds to sixth formers – can get involved.

The building has opened up new opportunities for teaching. “We were delivering our STEAM curriculum in classrooms but now we can do things on a huge scale,” Holloway says. Pupils have taken part in interactive lessons such as creating tortoise formations as Roman soldiers and even making gunpowder – Talbot Heath is the first UK school to have been granted a licence to do so.

Holloway says: “It means they have a depth of understanding and insight that they never would have had previously, and they say that to us. It’s enhancing their learning and their ability to think on their feet, problem-solve and be adaptable.”

However, Holloway says other schools can follow suit without a STEAM building. “You can apply what we’re doing to any space; if you’ve got a white wall and can get hold of a projector, you can do it.

“That said, by having this dedicated building, on that scale with that level of ambition and scope, it’s a statement of intent. It emphasises the importance that we place on this. This is not a fad or a gimmick, this is our whole curriculum aged 3–18 so it’s a fundamental shift in how we are educating and to what end.”

Holloway says the hub has attracted interest already: “You’ve got parents coming in and they’re just blown away by this; this is what they want for their daughters. It has had a significant impact on recruitment.”

Inspiring young minds

It’s a slightly different story at Gresham’s School, which had to put the enabling works stage of its STEAM centre on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If allowed back in the summer term, it might be the case that the construction team can catch up whilst there are no students around. Due for completion in May 2021, headmaster Robb says it could now be June or July, ready for teaching from September 2021.

Sir James Dyson, founder of Dyson and Gresham’s alumnus, donated £18.75m to the school to enable it to construct what will be known as The Dyson Building. The building has been designed by Dyson’s architects WilkinsonEyre.

Robb says: “He’s a governor at the school and he’s always been really interested in school matters. The donation was absolutely superb.

“James is the poster boy for STEAM. He left here as a fine arts student – he wanted to be a painter and sculptor – then went to art college and ended up in furniture design. He’s gone from being a fine artist to a designer to a technical engineer.

“It’s a traditional British thing to say you’re either an artist or a scientist, which can push you away from the other educational area. He is someone who sat on that fence and came through it, ending up in a very high-technology business having been an out-and-out creative artist. I think he is very interesting in our story, not only because he’s paid for the building but also because he represents everything that it means.”

It’s a traditional British thing to say you’re either an artist or a scientist, which can push you away from the other educational area

As well as high-quality maths classrooms and science labs, there will be an art department based over three floors, as well as space to teach 3D, robotics and AI.

While Robb hopes other schools will take up STEAM learning, he believes having a dedicated building isn’t necessary.

“I don’t expect this to be a STEAM revolution and I hate the idea of fadishness. I hate the idea that if we get a STEAM building that some of our competitors will go, all right, we need a STEAM building too. But if they believe that STEAM is interesting, they can achieve it through changing their curriculum rather than changing their buildings.”

Robb says Gresham’s has always had a creative reputation, with the talent of former pupils notable. On whether the building will help to attract more inventive students, Robb says: “If it fills that narrative that we are a school that suits creative people, then it probably will attract more people, or more of the sort of people who are curious and interesting, which is really exciting for us. It’s always great to have more pupils but it’s nice to have different sorts of pupils.”

In a statement from the school, Dyson said: “To prime a pipeline of young people who want to study engineering, we must inspire them at the earliest possible stage – I hope this building will do just that.

“For 20 years, my Foundation has supported science and engineering education. I’ve observed that from the age of around six, children are very engaged; they are inventive, dreaming up ideas, and curious, wanting to know how they can be made. But these traits get stamped out of them, partly by the system and partly because the teaching of these subjects in schools has not kept up with the pace of technological change.

“By creating state-of-the-art spaces I hope that we can foster, inspire and educate more brilliant young minds.”

Teaching will take place in Gresham’s School’s STEAM centre from September 2021

Thinking differently

We will have to wait and see what impact The Dyson Building has on pupils at Gresham’s, but at Talbot Heath, Holloway is already seeing changes in pupils since learning in the STEAM Hub.

“We learned during this lockdown situation that we’ve now got students who are thinking differently; they were able to make a smooth transition into a new type of learning,” she says.

“The building itself is being used as a key worker school so it’s taking on a new character currently. It’s so flexible that it will be able to undertake many roles for the school going forward.”

You may also like: The bright lights of modern boarding


How is the pandemic affecting your teaching?