Science Space

On several recent projects I’ve had the opportunity to review ed specs prepared by several well-respected educational facilities consultants and have noted that spaces proposed for science education are often inadequate, incomplete and ill-defined. Since science learning space is unlike other classroom space, both in terms of area and cost, such program inadequacies hamper the design architect who tries to provide appropriate spaces for science education.

Science learning space is unlike other classroom space, both in terms of area and cost.

Deficiencies in these ed specs appear to stem from two sources: a lack of understanding of the activities of a modern school science program combined with the impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act on space needs, and the additional spaces required by such a program.

One typical mistake is to make the science teaching space too small.

The National Science Education Standards, published in 1996, states “Hands-on activities are not enough – students must also have ‘minds-on’ experiences. Science teaching must involve students in inquiry-oriented investigations in which they interact with their teachers and peers.” The combined lab/classroom is recommended because today’s science teaching involves moving from class discussions to hands-on activities and back again, often more than once, during a single class period. Teacher surveys and field reports have shown that significantly more hands-on science occurs in combined lab/classrooms than in facilities where the classroom area is a space separate from the lab.

The NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities makes specific recommendations as to the minimum area per student and the maximum number of students in science education spaces. For high schools, the NSTA Guide recommends a combined lab/classroom of at least 60 net square feet per student and a maximum class size of 24. Studies have shown that the “incident” or mishap rate in science teaching spaces increases significantly when the space per student is less than 60 net square feet; it also increases significantly when the student population in a lab/classroom is greater than 24.

A typical, general purpose classroom is sized in many ed specs at 900 net square feet, but following the NSTA Guide’s recommendations a lab/classroom of 24 students should be 1,440 square feet, which is 60 percent larger than a typical classroom. The recommended allowance for prep and storage space is an additional 10 square feet per student, or 240 square feet per lab/classroom. For safe science teaching, these are the minimum spaces required; in other words, each science lab/classroom and associated prep/storage space should be at least 1680 square feet.

Wilmington Friends School Chemistry

A chemistry lab/classroom sized for 24 students at 60 SF/Student.

Typical lab/classrooms seen in recent ed specs, however, are only 1,100 square feet for a capacity of 25-28 students.

Such undersized recommendations lead to undersized budgets. Science space is significantly more expensive than general purpose classroom space due to the casework, utilities, equipment and ventilation required. If a general purpose classroom is budgeted at $100 per square foot, then science space should be budgeted at $200 per square foot, not including movable and consumable science teaching apparatus and equipment. Using these figures, a 900 square foot general purpose classroom would be budgeted at $90,000, but a science lab/classroom and associated prep/storage space should be budgeted at $336,000. It is readily apparent that ed specs which do not make this distinction will lead to budgets that cannot possibly construct the science spaces required.

Science spaces must be properly planned for and budgeted before the bond election takes place or there will be no money or space available for inquiry-based, hands-on science education activities.

This article was originally published in the St. Louis Construction News and Review in the May/June 2004 issue.