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The STEAM Library
Ben Somner
2nd August 2019

Envisioning the future of the school library, and its dynamic role in STEAM Schools

It has been a long time since the school library was purely about lending books - in the digital age it has become so much more. The modern library has increasingly become a destination for curiosity and creativity, a place that inspires students and encourages a love of learning.

Where we have previously witnessed row upon row of books being replaced with rows of desktop computers, these are now also disappearing to provide more flexible facilities. Learners are now encouraged to BYOD (bring your own device) or use school-issued tablets and laptops – making learners more mobile and spaces more flexible.

Even the terms used to describe these transparent and dynamic learning environments are evolving like the spaces themselves. While the space they describe are largely the same, libraries are becoming learning commons, learning hubs and media centres.

With the ability for digital content and information to be accessed anywhere, via the devices we all carry in our bags and pockets, so the library therefore becomes a place of participation and social learning, encouraging exploration, communication and collaboration – key tenets of the 21st century learner.

The modern library is helping to instil the characteristics that employers now deem most valuable - critical thinking and problem solving. The same characteristics that are prioritised in a ‘STEAM’ approach. The experiential learning in a STEAM education results in students that work creatively to persist in problem solving and embrace collaboration.

The evolution of STEAM – from STEM to STEAM to SE21


STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. STEM is not however merely a collection of four subjects, or an attempt to increase science literacy, but an “interdisciplinary approach to learning where rigorous academic concepts are coupled with real-world lessons as students apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in contexts that make connections between school, community, work, and the global enterprise…” (Tsupros, 2009). A STEM education is project-based and creates critical thinkers and problem-solvers.


Georgette Yakman founded the STEAM movement in 2007. She defined STEAM as “Science and Technology, interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in elements of Mathematics.”

Adding an ‘A’ to STEM, it is important to note that the ‘A’ should not refer simply to Art as a subject but to “The Arts” – incorporating language, arts and humanities. With this definition, STEAM is more than the sum of its five core ‘subjects’, but is of course an integrated educational approach.

The development from STEM to STEAM places a greater emphasis on communication and collaboration – not only inquiry and critical thinking, the students are encouraged to engage in experiential learning and problem-solve through a creative process.


Dulwich College International (DCI) are leading the agenda with their new STEAM model. Their SE21 programme stands for STEAM and Entrepreneurship & Environmental Sustainability in the 21st Century (SE21 is also the post code of their London School!) where all the principals of STEAM are bolstered by a further emphasis on innovation and business through entrepreneurialism.

The first roll-out of SE21 hubs within existing schools have provided spaces for students to pitch ideas and collaborate in real-world problem solving and project-based learning. The hubs also incorporate new and exciting makerspace facilities for robotics, cad-cam, and virtual reality.

DCI are thought leaders in this field, and Broadway Malyan have helped to develop and evolve the model through trialing the SE21 hub model in small refurbishment projects before scaling up to underpin a whole school approach.

We are now underway with DCI’s first new build STEAM school; a school where the concepts of STEAM and collaboration are interwoven into the very DNA of the design. The idea of traditional departmental territories have become blurred and replaced instead with a more fluid layout and approach to learning. The design also places a strong emphasis on ease of access to outdoor learning and provides opportunities to collaborate in all areas and levels of the school

The role of STEAM in the future library

In the education sector we are increasingly seeing the inclusion of ‘STEAM rooms’ and ‘STEAM buildings’ to accommodate and cluster those traditional subjects described by the acronym. However, STEAM is not about individual spaces - in a STEAM school, the effect of this educational approach needs to be all-encompassing and pervasive. Our approach put the library as the heart of the school, or perhaps more accurately, ensures it is the ‘life blood’ of a school that connects all learners and as such places the library at the epicenter of the school’s STEAM endeavors. But what will this STEAM-loaded future library look like?


The future library must be able to cater for different learning styles, different groups sizes and different acoustic environments. From active and dynamic spaces for project work and group collaboration, through to individual quiet study pods, variety and variety of scale is key.

Maker space

STEAM schools place an emphasis on learning by doing, and making things. The ‘makerspace’ has therefore become a key component of any dynamic STEAM learning environment. A makerspace gives students the materials, tools and space to be creative and innovative. Rather than these spaces being incorporated into a traditional ‘design technology’ classroom, they should be at the heart of the STEAM school – in the library - where the creative emphasis can cross-pollenate with all subjects.

Role in the School

Technology continues to improve access to digital resource. This leads to the idea of the single, centralised library becoming less relevant. Of course, students still need spaces where knowledge can be assimilated, which can be multiplied around the school in the form of collaborative commons within the learning clusters. But essentially, the library ‘stretches’, and grows further into the fabric of the school to become a connector, a conduit for creative collaboration. In some cases the school itself becomes the library.

The learning spine that runs through the Chengdu Westminster campus, which has been designed by Broadway Malyan

Case Studies

Shanghai Dehong School (a sister school to the Dulwich College International network of schools)

SE21 is a unique educational framework where the ‘S’ stands for STEAM, ‘E’ for entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability and the ‘21’ for the 21st century skills developed in the school’s approaches to learning.

The brief for Shanghai Dehong School also placed a strong emphasis on amalgamating STEAM with the outdoor learning. Opportunities for outdoor learning are embedded in all parts of the design; from large science, DT and makers courtyards on the ground level to multiple, flexible terraces on each and every level, topped with an exploratory rooftop combining science and humanities gardens, play areas and a 300m running track.

From Primary (Grades 1-5), the students are grouped into whole year clusters. Each cluster combines four Chinese Medium Learning (CML) classrooms and four immersive, flexible English Medium Learning (EML) classrooms. At the heart of every cluster is a multiuse SE21 break-out area combining a large lecture space and portable study pods, allowing teachers and students to rearrange the space to provide a dynamic and flexible learning environment necessary for 21st century learning.

Middle school teaching is clustered departmentally and pairs immersive CML and EML classrooms around flexible SE21 collaboration areas. A large SE21 hub is located on the ground floor of the building adjacent to the main lobby and paired together with the library to form the academic heart of the school. It is not itself a ‘library’ in traditional terms. Instead it’s more a cluster of collaborative and quiet spaces that are stitched into surrounding SE21 spaces, both horizontally and vertically. This allows the library to become an easily accessed resource where students can gain instant access to knowledge during enquiry based project learning.

Each and every cluster, both in primary and middle and on all levels of the school, has its own dedicated outdoor learning terraces located around two large quads. This helps to emphasise the importance of fluidity between indoor and outdoor learning; a concept that importantly formed the heart of the brief that was developed from the beginning of the project.

“It is not itself a ‘library’ in traditional terms. Instead it’s more a cluster of collaborative and quiet spaces that are stitched into surrounding SE21 spaces, both horizontally and vertically.”

UNNC Library Interior Design

Although not a school library, we have developed the ‘STEAM Library’ theory through our work on University of Nottingham Ningbo’s new library project. Our proposal puts into practice a lot of the principals we have developed in our international school work, where dynamic and fluid spaces are coupled with controlled and focused zones to provide a variety of different learning environments.

The ground floor of the 4-storey 24,000sqm library is dedicated to social learning and the creation of an education community to serve the whole campus. This ‘social garden’ is inspired by the green spaces of the campus and aspires to in-part replace some of the green space lost to this new library development. Green planting will be brought into the interior of the library, on all levels to create an environment that promotes wellbeing and an atmosphere of calm and tranquillity.

Responding to the changing learning behaviours of students, the library will be open 24 hours a day and can accommodate up to 2,000 people at any one time. As well as providing a quiet spaces for individual learning, the facility also includes multi-function rooms, event spaces, discussion areas for social study and a meditation area – essentially providing a central social space for the whole campus.

Westminster School Chengdu – Learning Resource Spine

Our proposal for Chengdu Westminster School includes the ‘Learning Resource Spine’, which as well as acting as the school library, also physically connects all teaching zones including the STEAM subjects accommodated in the Science & Technology department and Fine Arts & Performing Arts ‘Pavilion’ buildings.

Crucially, it also provides an array of different collaborative spaces that bring together students of different ages, and teachers of different specialisms in an exciting and dynamic environment where dialogue, discussion and collaboration are actively encouraged. Enclosed reading rooms and book archives are included alongside project rooms and group working zones to accommodate all learners.

Here, the Learning Resource Spine acts as conduit to spread the STEAM principals of inquiry, creativity, and collaboration across the whole campus to all learners.

Through the interior design, we have provided a range of spaces that reference the traditional library aesthetic but create a vibrant and varied learning journey with diverse spaces and visual connections to the external natural environment.