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Science Facilities

In the early 1990s, many middle and high schools began converting their industrial arts shops into “tech labs,” in which the power tools, sawdust and grease of the vocational programs were replaced by computers, student workstations and canned technology courseware. Students flocked to the new teach labs because they were unique environments within the school, and used personal computers which students were excited to use. Further, the teacher acted more as a facilitator in this environment. The program was more student-directed, with small groups working together at a variety of workstations doing different “hands-on” things.

The new science standards suggest a science education model much different from the “cookbook” approach – the teacher will write a question on the marker board and tell student teams to use the scientific method to design their own investigations to answer the question. Obviously, if 12 teams of two students each tackle the question from 12 different directions, the materials, equipment and space required for each investigation will be different.

The National Science Education Standards, published in 1996, suggest that inquiry-based, hands-on science teaching is a national science education goal. The new science standards suggest a science education model much different from the “cookbook” approach – the teacher will write a question on the marker board and tell student teams to use the scientific method to design their own investigations to answer the question. Obviously, if 12 teams of two students each tackle the question from 12 different directions, the materials, equipment and space required for each investigation will be different.

Students will need a large place where they can conduct investigations; cut and join wood, metals and other materials; build apparatus; and leave it in place for the time necessary to carry out the investigations. The space should have a high-bay area for taller apparatus, bare concrete floors, a dust collection system, a water source and floor drain, and flexible lighting to grow plants or animals. Integrated curricula may encourage an engineering solution, which could require computer-assisted drawing as well as computer-based monitoring and testing apparatus. Hey, does anyone know where we could find a space like this? The old, dirty shop down in the industrial arts area would work well, since it already has the power and dust collection system and probably also has water and drains.

Several schools have recently turned to vocational shops for the type of spaces needed in today’s inquiry-based, hands-on science. South Carroll High School in Carroll County, MD used a large vo-ag shop and built a “clean room” space for computers and planning within it. The high bay space remained a shop with overhead doors, bare concrete floors, power and water where needed, and floor drains. Students design their own projects and work with a teacher facilitator to obtain the materials and equipment needed. The facilitator even helps students write grant applications to fund their work.

South Carroll High School converted a vo-ag shop as a long-term project space.

South Carroll High School converted a vo-ag shop as a long-term project space.

At River Oaks Public School, a 1991 K-8 school in a suburb of Toronto, Ont., student teams conduct an integrated project in which they develop a concept for a new toy; write a proposal to build, market and sell this toy; prepare a business plan, including cost estimates; use computer-aided design and drafting to produce production drawings; build a prototype of the toy; then develop a plan for mass production. The spaces required for such a program include a glass-enclosed computer-assisted design space and a separate manufacturing area with heavy-duty tables, and power and hand tools for building prototypes and production runs. The faculty manager is a facilitator, giving students appropriate input and supervision, but not telling them “how.”

River Oaks students develop a toy as a lab project.

River Oaks students develop a toy as a lab project.

The 1992 science facilities at Durham Academy in Durham, NC, included a high-bay, concrete-floored student project room connecting two physics labs. Durham’s physics curriculum has a strong engineering component in which students must design and build their own apparatus throughout the year. The project space includes power tools and movable tables, plus a circular stair to a platform above where gravity and pendulum investigations can be carried out. As part of a recent study of the expanded needs for science, it was recommended that this space be doubled in size to accommodate the increased interest in this type of activity.

Durham Academy's Project Space

Durham Academy's Project Space

Kent Denver School in Englewood, CO, recently expanded and renovated its Gates Science Center, including a ground-floor Center for Innovation. This space has large, double doors opening directly outdoors, heavy-duty tables, workbenches and industrial shelving, a bare concrete floor and exposed structure with the ability to hang heavy objects from a grid of “unistrut” throughout the space. Students will design their own projects in the adjacent Digital Art Center and build them in the Center for Innovation using small hand and machine tools under the guidance of a faculty facilitator.

Kent Denver's Center for Innovation

Kent Denver's Center for Innovation

Troy High School in Troy, NY, is adding a two-story library and science addition adjacent to their existing vocational wing. During detailed planning for the science spaces, the opportunity to use the adjacent industrial shops in conjunction with science suggested that science be located on the first floor. The space between the new two-story addition and the existing one-story vocational wing will be roofed over to create a large, high-bay student project space. Glass walls will separate the project space from the adjacent lab/classrooms and will allow passing students to look into this exciting area as they pass. Clerestories will allow large amounts of daylight into the project space.

Troy High School's proposed science and library wing.

Troy High School's proposed science and library wing.

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This article was originally published in the August 2002 issue of School Planning & Management magazine.