Training Skills & Learning

How to overcome the challenges of building a cutting-edge STEM centre

There has been a lot of discussion about the STEM skills shortage that is being seen throughout the UK. The Telegraph has reported on research by the UK Commission for Employment & Skills, for instance, which suggests that 43 per cent of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths vacancies were hard to fill as of the latter months of 2016.

What’s more, the publication also revealed that just 15,000 students in the UK sat a computing or ICT A-Level in the summer of 2016, which represents less than two per cent of the entire number of exams sat during that period.

Further Education establishments across the UK also have a challenge in STEM provision that they must address — providing well-equipped environments that can cater for hands-on teaching methods but with small budgets available to them.

One possible solution to overcoming this challenge is intelligent construction. For example, one of the leading construction companies in the North of England, Central and Southern Scotland, Esh Group, uses value engineering to assess the design, materials and systems of a building project to establish where efficiencies can be achieved. This methodology may result in the firm being able to find an alternative wall finishing that can save the project several thousand pounds, or identify specialist glazing materials which can retain heat and thus save energy costs in the long run.

Why dedicated STEM centres are proving appealing

Another way that Esh Group has attempted to engage the workforce of tomorrow and enhance the skills sets needed to help those looking to get into a career related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects is through the development of a set of Get into STEM kits.

The construction company goes beyond just education when looking into factors related to STEM, however. Many colleges have chosen to build dedicated STEM centres to meet the demands of employers, and the Government’s Industrial Strategy, with Esh Group building STEM centres at Middlesbrough College and Northumberland College’s Ashington Campus alone.

Taking note that these buildings — like any other site in the educational sector — should be a focal point for communities is a factor Esh Group makes sure to remember when making these structures. Another consideration for the firm is that they are designed in a way that provides a safe, stimulating and sustainable environment for all. As such, they always consult closely with clients, pupils, teachers and the community to shape the vision of the new environment and meet the needs of future generations.

Steps to take when designing a STEM centre and then building it

Adaptable spaces for teaching facilities and workshops is usually a requirement from education providers when STEM centres are being constructed. For Northumberland College’s STEM centre in Ashington, for example, Esh Group installed a galvanised steel trench in the workshop area. This allows the college to adapt the room layout, move equipment and store power and data cables securely. The also fitted a moveable wall within the building, which can be opened up to create double-height workshop areas.

Bear in mind too that a busy college campus will likely be based very close to a STEM centre and within a prominent spot. As such, it’s important not to disrupt the smooth working of the institution. On recent builds, Esh Group considered this point and separated the site using Heras fencing and ensured clear signage is in place.

If shared road access will be leading up to the site where the STEM cente is being built, then a traffic flow system should be set up in the early stages of the construction project. Site vehicles should drive fully onto site, with materials being delivered on a ‘just in time’ basis and stored in a dedicated lay down area.

Will a STEM centre be built with two storeys or more? If so, working at height must be factored in as well. Fortunately, the Health and Safety Executive has a raft of handy advice about this topic in this guide. Toolbox talks should be provided to every individual on site too, not to mention thorough risk assessments and method statements created to ensure everybody is safe and secure throughout the entire development.

Those carrying out the construction work of a STEM centre should also be factoring specialist equipment into their build. After all, the aim of the facility will be to provide world-class sector-based education to pupils once it’s complete and open.

A real-life lean manufacturing facility — complete with a robotic-controlled production line — was set up by Esh Group when they were building a STEM centre within Middlesbrough College, for instance. The centre now replicates typical industrial environments and includes fully-functional chemical and oil processes, which are monitored and operated from a high-tech control room. The construction company also installed specialist science and technology workshops, including dedicated ‘fab labs’ where budding product designers and entrepreneurs can access the latest in digital fabrication equipment for prototyping.

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