“Grow STEM” Center.
client90. SU “Gen. Jose de San Martin”
usersSecondary school students and teachers
Due to its location in one of the outer districts of the capital, the school suffered from losing its students after 7th grade to more prestigious schools in the center of the city. This was problematic since the school had carefully developed an efficient program for primary schoolers that produced outstanding results, which were unfortunately lost after 7th grade. What is more, there were a lot of vacant student places and the school needed to attract more students.
The school expected to create a spacious center occupying a whole existing building wing. However, its layout was the typical dark, closed corridor with box-like classrooms on both sides. The space needed to be reimagined from the bottom up, in order to create a unified center that serves as a single entity, but at the same time allows for separate activities to take place simultaneously. This is a challenge from a structural and fire safety approval point of view.
Another hidden challenge, that we uncovered during the research phase, was the growing number of students with special needs, not only in the primary but also in secondary school years who had no adequate space to work with the school psychologist and resource teachers.
We knew that if we managed to create a visually and materially appealing space that looked more like a modern coworking space than a school, students would immediately appreciate the hidden message the school was trying to convey: “please stay, you are important to us”. We put great care in designing a multitude of spaces with colors and materials that would appeal especially to teenagers. Most of all, we designed the new space to inspire teachers to experiment with innovative teaching ways, which inevitably made an impression on the students as well. The whole design process was guided by multiple feedback and ideation workshops with the learning community. All this energy inevitably led to the birth of a new type of educational space that is considered the best STEM center in Bulgaria according to the Ministry of Education. On an almost daily basis, the school is visited by delegations from other schools, educational enthusiasts and television programs,. Needless to say, we achieved the primary goal of the project - in just one year the school’s students increased by 20%. Surprisingly, the increase was not just in high school students, but also in first graders - the school had to create one entirely new class for them.
We demolished the existing walls to create a unified space allowing the creation of multiple spaces. “The Heart” is where the learning community comes together for presentations, celebrations, cooking, experiments, or simply to be together. Where there were “boxes” and dark corridors, now there is a spacious inviting space for all and students, teachers and visitors can truly appreciate the true sense of being a “learning community”.
As the design progressed, the teachers had some notable concerns that the new open space would be a nightmare in terms of noise levels and they were very skeptical about teaching in such an environment. After they started using the space, they were happy to realize that their concerns turned out to be wrong. During our post-occupancy research, teachers also noted that they were needlessly anxious about the large glass doors and windows that made virtually all spaces transparent; it turned out that this transparency did not bother students' attention but instead contributed to everyone being more considerate of others using the space. Another related consequence was the notable decrease of violence in that part of the school.
The students not only learned to coexist and study in larger groups, but also with children who have special needs. We created a sensory room, covered in floor carpeting that continues onto the walls. Inside, the light strength and temperature can be controlled, focusing the attention on a large scale aquarium. Right next to the sensory room, there is a relaxation space with plants and yoga mats. Eventually, the school psychologist told us this is the only space where she has meaningful progress with special needs students. Not surprisingly, this space, which is partly visible through the aquarium, turns out to be a favorite space to all students.It welcomes them with its rich materials and unexpected design.