Case Study: STEM Spaces in Further Education

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For some time, there has been concern that many of the UK’s core economic problems are rooted in a shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills in the workplace and that these skills are critical to future economic growth and employment. The November 2017 policy paper, Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future, stated that: “…we need to tackle particular shortages of STEM skills. These skills are important for a range of industries, from manufacturing to the arts. The number of STEM undergraduates has been increasing over the last few years, but there remains unmet demand from employers.”  Furthermore, “We need to improve the quality and reputation of our technical Education. For too long, technical Education has not had the prestige that it has enjoyed in other countries.”

Further Education Colleges are vital providers of STEM education, offering a combination of follow up qualifications and apprenticeships to adults and young people, opening vocational pathways and giving employers a suitably qualified workforce. Below are some extracts from the case study, the full report is available here. 

Key Learning Points

Research into social learning spaces, principles and good practice that became evident was that:

  • Inclusivity throughout the campus for STEM students ensures there is no hierarchy of learning
  • Innovation and investment in specialist technologies is a crucial factor in establishing STEM environments where learning needs to evolve to meet industry standards of the future
  • Connecting learning with ‘real life’ experiences is fundamental to the design of STEM spaces
  • As with other aspects of educational space design, flexibility is key to ensuring longevity of space use and meeting future educational needs. This is true in both layout but also the ability for students to customise space in line with their learning
  • STEM subjects can express individuality within a larger institution through a distinct visual identity while maintaining connectivity within the wider campus
  • Integrating or blending subjects is the primary principle of STEM education and the key to this lies in the careful planning of relationships and synergies within and across departments.

In understanding good practice in this aspect of educational space design, future exemplars can build on the below recently completed FE colleges to make better, more inclusive yet efficient use of their spaces, embed a climate-ready whole-place approach and improve the lives of those who use these spaces the most.

Pipes and wires wrapped around a frame as part of some kind of INEOS manufacturing and processing facilities at Grangemouth adjacent to Forth Valley College Falkirk Campus.
INEOS facility adjacent to Forth Valley College Falkirk Campus

Innovation & Real World Spaces

Further Education Colleges have a long history with ‘real-world’ learning environments. From commercial courses such as catering or hairdressing taught in functioning restaurants or salons, to specialist STEM workshops such for electrical or mechanical engineering. New colleges are pioneering state-of-the-art technologies and spaces designed to meet the industry workplace standards. The following projects demonstrate recent good practice.

“We need to improve the quality and reputation of our technical Education. For too long, technical Education has not had the prestige that it has enjoyed in other countries.”

Energy and Industrial Strategy, UK Department for Business

The location of Forth Valley College Falkirk campus adjacent to the INEOS oil and gas facility at Grangemouth provides an ideal opportunity for students to develop relevant skills for the region. A wide variety of STEM disciplines including Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, Pneumatics and CNC machining, Chemical Engineering and Distillation Rigs for the petrochemical industries are taught at the College. Many are supported by pioneering simulated environments. Among the most innovative facilities is a specialist external training rig with a control room that replicates the experience of working on a process rig. The campus also houses ‘CompEx’ workshops, specialist spaces where skills in electrical installations within explosive and hazardous environments can be taught.

The City of Glasgow College Riverside Campus also offers specialist courses, such as Merchant Navy officer training, nautical science and engineering. This highly specialised new building, previously known as the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies, contains the first 360º shipping simulation suite in Scotland where Merchant Officers in training can realistically experience piloting a ship into any dock in the world. The campus also houses one of the most modern ship’s engine rooms in the country, state-of-the-art nautical chartrooms and a Marine Skills Centre with a jetty, rescue boats and free-fall lifeboat.

Facilities at College’s City Campus include a full-size aircraft cabin for cabin crew training, Scotland’s second-largest TV broadcasting studio, a builder’s yard and construction workshops amongst others. These simulated environments and workshop spaces are joined by more typical commercial units including a restaurant, a butchers shop, a bakery and a beauty studio located along the front edge of the building to engage directly with the public.


A student fiddles with the buttons steering a virtual boat on a mocked up bridge deck at a Marine simulation space at City of Glasgow College. She heads towards a virtual port of Sydney as the screens show the virtual boat gently splashing along the port.
Marine simulation space at City of Glasgow College

Inclusivity & Strategic Planning

Making good STEM spaces is a delicate balancing act. The practical hands-on subjects often demand a complex set of technical, servicing and spatial requirements. The traditional solution is to contain these facilities within specialist STEM workshop blocks, making servicing more straightforward. However, these spaces are frequently hidden from view, and the quality of any additional facilities or space is typically low, even non-existent. In some cases, students attending these courses even enter from a different entrance to the rear of the building. This disconnect between other parts of the campus and the lower spatial qualities excludes these students from general collegiate life and identity.

The projects featured here tackle this issue, improving the quality of the workshop spaces by connecting them back to the wider campus and making them visible while balancing their complex planning and servicing needs.

At Forth Valley College the double-height STEM workshop block includes classrooms, break-out spaces and welfare areas at the same level of quality as those elsewhere on campus. The block is supplied by a secure service yard so it was necessary to locate the workshops to the rear of the site. However, a critical link corridor connects the block back with the wider campus.

“The College was clear in their brief that they wanted the same high-quality learning environments for the technical and engineering ‘workshop’ spaces as found within the more academic disciplines. There should be no hierarchy of learning.”

Mark Dawson, Project Architect, Keppie Architect

The campus is also fully equipped with a suite of science labs. These highly serviced spaces are located on the upper levels of the teaching block to ensure that the intensive servicing, ventilation and extract requirements do not occupy valuable learning space with dedicated service risers.

Engines in a teaching space and students observe a demonstration in the background at City of Glasgow College.
An engineering teaching space at City of Glasgow College

Ayrshire College took an inclusive approach to the STEM workshop spaces. The College stipulated in their brief that all departments were to be connected and visible from the campus entrance. The STEM workshops were to be linked with both the teaching block and the entrance space. The refectory located on the first floor further connects with the STEM workshop block drawing it together with other parts of the College and providing a visual link via a sizeable glazed screen overlooking the workshops. Project architect Ryan Sylvester reflected: “I think what we tried to do is make sure this was all looked at as one single facility.”


The concept of flexible or adaptable space has long been a recognised principle in the Education Sector. This concept may relate to space that can be easily changed or adapted to suit a range of different learning activities at different times or indeed may be adjusted by students as a customisable space. One of the most valuable attributes of flexible space is its ability to help futureproof a building, particularly relevant in STEM spaces where equipment and technologies are continually changing.

“This meant they could move a partition literally overnight so if the pedagogy changed, if a department size changed or anything changes.”

Brendan Diamond – Project Architect, Michael Laird Architects,

Glasgow City College developed a ‘Classroom of the Future’, space that can expand and contract to cope with future pedagogic and technological demands. The Classroom is entirely IT-enabled to encourage students to bring their own devices, and all available surfaces are writeable, turning them into viable learning spaces.

An inbetween space by the stairway in an atrium at a campus in the City of Glasgow College.
Atrium space on a busy day, City of Glasgow College


The theme of connectivity and spatial unity is evident throughout the projects examined. Interestingly the notion of expressing individual identity within the larger whole is also apparent. In Forth Valley College metal cladding is used to describe the industrial nature of the STEM workshop block and distinguish it from the other two masonry clad units. Ayrshire College also uses the materiality of the external facade to express the STEM identity.

“By putting a different material palette to the same area over the two storeys different to the four-storey wrap around the atrium meant that they were giving them an identity externally but internally they were still part of the rest of the building.”

Ryan Sylvester, Project Architect – Keppie Architects


Some of the projects examined demonstrate innovation in the use of state of the art specialist technologies, most strive to meet, even surpass industry standard of a 21st-century workplace in their relevant field. Still, all are innovative in their approach to spatial organisation.

Inclusivity is a recurring theme throughout the projects which all seek to create unified buildings where all spaces and departments benefit from the same quality of space and from the potential cross-disciplinary opportunities that may be encouraged by visual and architectural connections. Innovation continues in the STEM workshops and labs where flexible spaces are designed to shrink or expand depending on future technological or pedagogic demands.

Finally, the importance of individual identity within the larger whole is recognised, whether this is achieved using materials that describe the space and the activities therein or more deliberately using interior and sign design to mark the threshold of each new place.

Further Information

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