Technology has greatly affected the way science is taught and has enabled students to readily access materials and resources in ways previously unavailable. The need to access the school’s data network and the ability for a student to do so has changed so rapidly that designs for the “state-of-the-art” computer systems and networks are obsolete by the time the facility is constructed. Many schools completed in the last five years put their desktop computers on rolling carts and provided docking space for these carts around the perimeter of the room. In this way, a computer could be moved virtually anywhere in a lab/classroom when needed, then stored in a dedicated space where it could be easily used. This approach required data wiring to the various places where a computer might need to connect to the network. Recently, however, the increased capacity and lowered cost of wireless networks and the flexibility and lowered cost of laptop computers has moved planning toward this option, eliminating the extra space requirement for larger, desktop computers and the physical limitations of hard-wired network access. The size of computing devices is getting smaller and smaller. An elementary school in Massachusetts was equipping its students with hand held PDAs in 2000; these were used for note-taking and in conjunction with sensors designed for PDA use during field trips.
In a flexible science teaching environment where most or all furniture in the middle of the space is movable, providing electrical power can be a challenge. Laptops and PDAs can be recharged in wall or base cabinets equipped with transformers and plug strips when not in use. New wireless networks may include a cart which contains the wireless hub for a group of laptops and also serves as a recharging and storage station for the laptops themselves. Space must be provided for the cart, together with an electrical outlet to plug it into (power requirements must be checked before construction) and a hard-wired data port so that the hub can access the network. One advantage to the cart approach which is also a disadvantage is that the cart can be moved from room to room, moving the network with it. Since it can be moved from room to room, it might not be available to a class when it is needed if it is being used elsewhere. Recessed steel floor boxes can be constructed in the floor structure to provide power receptacles at various locations around the space; furniture can be moved so that power cords go directly down to these floor boxes, rather than being strung across the floor.
Recessed floor boxes should meet Underwriters Laboratories water exclusion standards. Avoid “poke through” devices in which the electrical outlet is approximately flush with the floor surface and opens upward, covered by a sliding or hinged cover. The covers are not designed for the sort of abuse a school will give them, thus they quickly break and leave the open outlet exposed to wash water or chemical spills. The old “tombstone” outlets that project above the floor surface should also be avoided as they greatly limit the flexibility of the space. These were not nicknamed “tombstones” without a reason – they are great tripping hazards. At the perimeter of the room, above the counter backsplash, a multi-celled aluminum raceway can be installed with electrical, data and video outlets at convenient centers. This allows the connection of devices virtually anywhere they are needed on the perimeter.