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Whittlesea tech School teams STEM students with industries of the future

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The brief was formidable. Design a welcoming, collaborative centre of technological innovation that prepares a diverse, transient population of 10,000 students (drawn from 14 government, catholic and independent schools) for a future workforce in which 75% of jobs involve STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Whittlesea tech School earned ClarkeHopkinsClarke the 2019 Learning environments Australasia (Vic chapter) award for a new facility under $8m. It launched in September 2018 at Melbourne Polytechnic’s Epping Campus as part of a 10-school initiative by the Victorian Department of Education and Training developing critical STEM skills in Victorian secondary students.

“Our programs focus on the process of problem-finding, developing empathy, ideation, prototyping, iterating and pitching innovations to stakeholders,” says Whittlesea Tech Director Sandra McKechnie. “through transdisciplinary, collaborative projects students learn the skillsets they need to innovate in a ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’ model of education. the curriculum focus changes every 6-12 months. So the building needed to provide broad learning settings, technology, connections to industry partners (virtual and face-to-face), and inspirational displays of community, student and industry achievements. We needed an array of specialist learning settings: ingenuity studio, innovation workshop, laboratory, digital design and presentation, enhanced with access to small group, breakout and support spaces allowing for long-term flexibility.”

A welcoming, inclusive atmosphere and seamless wayfinding were paramount. “Student numbers flux from 16 to 160 students, from single or multiple schools and diverse backgrounds,” McKechnie says. “this is also a resource for local community and industry partners, bringing people together to collectively prototype solutions to challenges faced by our community. So we needed a welcoming, comfortable space easily navigated by first-time visitors.”

Over two levels, the purpose-built facility links practical workshop and laboratory spaces housing high-tech tools and equipment to auditoriums, an industry hub, conference and meeting amenities, and a double-height central gallery and exhibition space running the length of the building. Spatial planning and volumetric design drawing strongly on an underlying theme of connectivity. Viewing windows, sliding doors and double-height spaces connect each learning environment with at least two others, allowing learners to organically progress projects through the ideation, production, testing, presentation and exhibition phases.

“Interiors were inspired by the learners’ path as they navigate through spaces and programs,” says ClarkeHopkinsClarke education Partner Wayne Stephens. “We developed a visual language of leading lines with soft curves reminiscent of a circuit board or metro map to use across a range of forms – pendant lighting, wayfinding graphics, floor finishes, furniture forms. It creates a really approachable interface with technology and subtly references design, invention and industry. We incorporated strong visual and physical connections to technology and the work produced using that technology. For example the workshop’s baffle ceiling gives glimpses into its structure and services. Advanced manufacturing methods like open-source plywood furniture designs and perforated metal screening showcase possible project solutions.”

The design uses proven construction methods to cost effectively deliver spaces supporting pedagogy in interesting ways. “every inch of the building is activated,” Stephens says. “The auditorium staircase area can accommodate large presentations and small group gatherings. the innovation workshop can host a single cohort moving between wet and dry areas or a collaboration involving 50 students.” Each formal learning space connects directly to a second learning environment with a breakout zone for seamless transitions. A large central gallery works as a perpetual exhibition space.

Furniture is modular and moveable to adapt to various learning modes. Advanced manufacturing methods including open-source plywood furniture designs and perforated metal, showcase possible project solutions. A neutral palette of timber and charcoals create bright, gender neutral accents in informal and active learning environments. The wayfinding system draws inspiration from the iconic design metro maps.

Interconnected lines of colour and universally recognisable symbols used throughout the building provide clear direction to people of all abilities and highlight the achievements of prominent Australian inventors.

Images by Dianna Snape

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