Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Leading in STEAM Education: Forward-Facing Schoenecker Center Opens its Doors

When the School of Engineering’s Dr. Rita Lederle makes concrete alongside her civil engineering students at the University of St. Thomas, the process will no longer take place out of sight.

Instead, her lesson on how to manipulate the properties of concrete will be held right in the middle of the action inside the Schoenecker Center, the university’s new central home for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math) education.

“Previously, all anybody ever saw of us was schlepping buckets of broken concrete bits out into our hallway,” Lederle said of the previous space in O’Shaughnessy Science Hall’s basement. The new civil engineering materials lab now borders an art gallery and video production studio off the Schoenecker Center’s main atrium.

An Anthony James Icosahedron sculpture is the focal point of the Schoenecker Center's grand atrium. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

“Now, all kinds of people will get to see the cool stuff we’re doing inside the classroom,” Lederle said. “And that’s when we hope they’ll start asking questions.”

Opening its doors on Feb. 5, the five-level, 130,000-square-foot Schoenecker Center on Summit Avenue in St. Paul houses dedicated spaces for the arts, engineering and sciences. Visitors will find everything from a recording studio and microbiology research lab to an engineering high bay and music rehearsal hall.

“This world-class space will prepare our students to thrive in a rapidly changing world,” St. Thomas President Rob Vischer said. “From the days of our founding, innovation for a better tomorrow has been at the heart of St. Thomas’ mission. The Schoenecker Center is a powerful demonstration of our commitment to educate the principled leaders of tomorrow who will be ready to meet the world’s needs.”

Opportunity for creative collision throughout the building is vast and varied. Emerging media classrooms overlook the art history workroom. A gaming studio neighbors the performance hall. And the robotics lab has a direct view into the prototyping studio.

Connecting them all are grand sight lines and thousands of square feet of interior glass. Whenever possible, architects deliberately worked to erase barriers, putting learning on display. When a glass wall could be used instead of drywall, glass won nearly every time.

Students hang out in a study area near the STEAM Cafe in the new Schoenecker Center on opening day of the new building. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

“One of our main goals at St. Thomas is to teach our students to think creatively, and that can be a huge educational challenge. The Schoenecker Center offers an unusual and special solution,” College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bill Tolman said. “This particular juxtaposition of subject areas – the arts, sciences and engineering – will offer a true liberal arts education that stimulates all parts of the brain, and, in doing so, get people to be more creative.”

Preparing the workforce of the future

The STEAM complex was developed in direct response to a rapidly changing workforce. Labs and technology will prepare students for emerging careers in areas like artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing.

But the collaboration that will occur within the facility will also prepare students to enter a job market in which employers increasingly value flexible, creative thinkers. Industry and corporate partners, including Target, 3M and Ecolab, consulted on the complex, sharing ideas on how to eliminate departmental silos and foster collaboration.

Nursing students learn how to measure hazardous materials in a Schoenecker Center chemistry lab suite. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

The Toro Company generously helped support the creation of a digital systems lab which will provide hands-on introduction to high performance and automated feedback control systems.

“At The Toro Company, we prioritize strategic investments in people, innovation and technologies that fuel next-generation customer solutions," said Rick Olson, Chairman, President and CEO of The Toro Company. "Partnering with the University of St. Thomas to provide a state-of-the-art lab environment that fosters multidisciplinary experiences, helps us build a future-ready team.”

Interdisciplinary education has long played a vital role at St. Thomas, as faculty and staff work to support the development of the whole person – mind, body and spirit.

“Embedded in this building is one of the most elemental qualities of what defines a St. Thomas education, and that is a breadth of experience,” School of Engineering Dean Don Weinkauf said. “The most important problems yet to be solved in this world – their solutions live in the complex relationship between society, technology and the human condition. There are no more boundaries.”

The Schoenecker Center's extensive use of interior glass, from railings to doorways, puts learning on display. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Schoenecker Center classes and programming are leaning into the exciting connections between STEAM fields. For example, chemistry, emerging media, and biology students will study the use of synthetic antimicrobials. Meanwhile, microbiology and art history students will soon swab the university’s art collection (taking care not to damage the artwork) and will use the microbes they find to create new art pieces out of bacteria.

In Musical Acoustics, a course co-taught by music faculty Dr. Doug Orzolek and physics faculty Dr. Jeff Jalkio, students are exploring how sound is produced and its journey through space. Majors in the class vary from mechanical engineering to Catholic studies.

“It’s incredibly engaging to experience these different perspectives while exploring a topic that I love,” said Brooke Vandervoort ’24, a music business major enrolled in the acoustics course. “Many of the science students I had never seen before in my previous classes. I can’t wait to learn from them and my professors in this kind of collaborative environment.”

Built by Tommies, for Tommies

The Schoenecker Center itself was one of the largest collaborative projects at St. Thomas in decades. More than 150 staff, faculty and students had a direct impact on the design.

Their fingerprints are everywhere, from the civil engineering classrooms where ceilings were left exposed (to allow students to study the structure above) to physics classrooms that use traditional chalkboards (faculty prefer demonstrating equations on the tried-and-true medium).

A donor wall installation highlights the contributions of Guy and Barbara Schoenecker and their family on the first floor of the STEAM complex. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

A building that is intricately designed by and for Tommies will bear the name of a family with a deep university legacy. Dedicated to the late Guy and Barbara Schoenecker, the family’s impact reverberates across campus.

Guy Schoenecker graduated from St. Thomas in 1949 with a philosophy and political science degree. After founding BI Worldwide, Guy along with wife Barbara, quickly became two of the university’s most prominent supporters. From libraries and athletics facilities to one of the university’s largest endowed scholarship programs, the Schoeneckers were dedicated to investing in the future of the Tommie community.

That legacy of philanthropic impact continues today through son Larry, president of the Schoeneckers Foundation, and daughter Lisa Anderson ’83 MA, a member of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. Honoring their parents’ passion for a liberal arts education, Anderson says the STEAM complex was a fitting gift.

“The very design of the building prioritizes openness and flexibility and collaboration in all its elements. Like St. Thomas, the building is future-facing – always prepared for what’s next,” Anderson said. “We hope students will find the new spaces inspiring.”

Music faculty Bert Pinsonneault leads a choir practice in the new performance hall. The venue can seat up to 150 guests. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

An innovative blending of STEM and the arts

Artists of all kinds have infused inspiration and beauty throughout the complex. Deliberately focusing on the “A” in STEAM, craftspeople produced intricate millwork that graces the performance hall. Architects designed an airy, five-story grand atrium complete with an equally grand staircase. And at the base of the atrium, a stunning sculpture by artist Anthony James, the Portal Icosahedron, dazzles with its LED lights and glass windows.

In total, a dozen visual art pieces were either commissioned or purchased for the Schoenecker Center and all incorporate the varied disciplines of a STEAM environment.

“Architecture and art inspire. We can’t underestimate what the design of this space – and its beauty – will do for our students,” Weinkauf said. “There’s no better way to look into the soul of the human condition than through art. It is there that we communicate through a common language.”

A School of Engineering student views the I-35W bridge installation in the basement of the Schoenecker Center. (Brandon Woller ’17/University of St. Thomas)

One of the most striking elements of the new building is a piece of the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The massive piece was installed early in the Schoenecker Center construction process, with much of the building built around it.

Lederle was a bridge engineer before coming to St. Thomas. She’s already used the display as a learning tool in her steel and concrete design class.

“We talked about how, if you make a mistake, things fall down,” Lederle said. “I told them, ‘This is a powerful reminder of why what you’re learning matters. What we do has an enormous impact on people’s lives.’”

New campus quad comes into focus

As the Schoenecker Center kicks off a new era of STEAM education at St. Thomas, it’s also helping transform south campus. The latest piece in a much larger puzzle, the STEAM complex won’t hold the title of newest university facility for long.

The new Schoenecker Center just days before holding its first classes in St. Paul. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Mere feet from its main entrance – the Schoenecker Center will welcome a new neighbor in the coming years, the Lee and Penny Anderson Arena. Together, the duo is set to bookend a brand-new south campus quad.

“Everything we did at Schoenecker Center, we did while considering the impact to the entirety of campus,” Vice President for Facilities Management Jim Brummer said. “Schoenecker sets us up for the next great community-driven project, putting us in a position to build on the incredible momentum we are enjoying here at St. Thomas.”