- The inspiring design of Whittlesea Tech is aimed at boosting STEM engagement
- Developing transferable skills and the confidence to move between roles is vital
- The award-winning design encourages autonomy and agency in students and staff
Science, technology and maths classes spent grappling with social and environmental issues from loneliness to water use? Freedom to create anything from a biodegradable dog toy to an app connecting locals with shared hobbies? How about a podcast studio where Koori students interview local Elders? Or working with local businesses and universities to develop wearable products made from mushroom waste?
This is not school as many of us experienced it – but that’s precisely the point. With STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) enrolments declining across many countries and concerns about low engagement among girls, some interesting government initiatives are starting to bear fruit.
Whittlesea Tech School on the Epping campus of Melbourne Polytechnic is the most recent addition to the Victorian government’s network of 10 tech schools with access to innovative programs and equipment. Multi-disciplinary, inquiry-based learning focuses on problem-solving and collaboration with local TAFEs, unis, government and industries.
“Tech schools are a chance to do something very different.”
Sandra McKechnie, director, Whittlesea Tech
In Melbourne’s north, where Whittlesea Tech works with 14 partner schools and 10,000 students, the thriving local food industry provides fertile ground for innovation on issues like food security, drought, waste, allergies, future foods and bush tucker.
“Tech schools are a chance to do something very different because they sit between secondary and tertiary,” says Sandra McKechnie, the director of Whittlesea Tech. “When they move into the workforce, students may be in up to 17 jobs through their careers. So the focus is on developing transferable skills and the confidence to move between roles.”
ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects, the school’s designers, embraced Whittlesea Tech’s agenda to create a light-filled space that prioritises connection, flexibility and flow.
The foyer doubles as an inspiration gallery, showcasing prototypes as well as finished designs. There’s an auditorium used for presentations and community events, and specialist labs for prototyping, masterclasses, professional development, digital design and food innovation.
A central staircase, flexible spill-out zones and anterooms between labs – filled with cutting-edge equipment and supplies at users’ disposal – empower students to move freely between different creative modes and technologies.
“This kind of STEM needs new design principles because you need to be able to move as fast as your ideas move,” says project architect Audrey Whisker. “If you need to model something on your computer upstairs and then pop downstairs and show your iPad to one of the teachers, saying, ‘How would I make this, should I be using a laser cutter or 3D printer?’, the connections are really quick.”
The design, which recently won a Learning Environments Australasia Award (Vic Chapter), prioritises clear sightlines, natural light and ventilation, and big spaces for big ideas. Sandra says easy flow through the space encourages autonomy and agency in students and staff. Great acoustics mean the school can comfortably accommodate up to 400 students at a time.
Shang Wang, a former head of science at Brunswick Secondary College now teaching at Whittlesea Tech, says every day feels like professional development. He sees the open, workshop feel of the school and ability to glimpse varied equipment – from 3D printers to laser cutters and VR – nurture students’ curiosity.
Outside of a regular classroom “they ease up, talk about the issue, work with their hands and ask questions,” Shang says. “It aids brainstorming and possibilities if you’re stuck on a problem and you look around and see a laser cutter or UV printer – you think, ‘Oh, I could just do it on that.’”
He says the space to reflect deeply on the design process and integrate industry perspectives into teaching have been revelatory. This accessibility is also benefiting community members, who work on their own projects in after-hours programs and stage their own events in the auditorium free of charge.
In just over 12 months Whittlesea Tech School has extended its impact well beyond STEM. “Our young people are faced with so much these days, with the rise of mental illness in the community and domestic violence and people living on the poverty line,” Sandra says.
“Yes, students leave here with an experience of STEM in its multi-disciplinary form, but the ‘aha’ moments for me are when students leave a program with renewed belief in themselves and excitement about their future.”