Six Science Labs for the 21st Century

“America will rank first in science and mathematics by the year 2000.”

These lofty-sounding words are part of Goals 2000, the federal Educate America Act. The turn of the century is fast approaching, but we’ve barely made a start in responding to this mandate. Though science supervisors, district officials and architects are scrambling to create better teaching and research facilities, many fall short of the mark. Often, lab installations and renovations merely rehash designs from the 1950s and ‘60s.

Fortunately, change is afoot – as evidenced by the following examples of forward-thinking science facilities. The schools illustrated here have broken out of the ‘60s mode. Their science facilities are characterized by flexible space, integration of curriculum, and provisions for independent and small-group learning – all enhanced by extensive computer availability. Most districts can benefit from the lessons these facilities teach.

The year 2000 is almost here. With the help of top-notch science facilities, students in these six districts may be on their way to achieving those lofty federal goals.

One – Integrate curriculum for school-wide science

Westside Middle School in Omaha, Neb., has renovated into four “houses,” each with its own integrated curriculum. Each house has its own group of classrooms, including a traditional science lab and classroom, and its own internal “Discovery Center.” The center is a technology resource lab for all subjects and is an electronic extension of the central media center. Small-group project areas and technology-equipped work stations are networked for schoolwide voice, data and video transmission. The center makes it possible for students to work together on projects that integrate science with other disciplines, enhancing every program in the curriculum.

Westside Middle School "Discovery Center"

Westside Middle School “Discovery Center”

Two – Save money with multipurpose labs

Oakville Senior High School, in St. Louis County, Mo., has two prototype multipurpose labs. The faculty helped develop lab layouts suitable for any course in the integrated curriculum. For instance, specially constructed tables accommodate a 2-meter long physics experiment but also provide the wet services required for other disciplines.

Teachers at Oakville also concluded that lab work represents 50 percent or less of total class time in every one of the school’s science courses. Thus the new wing was designed so that two science classrooms share each lab.

Since classrooms cost about half as much as labs, this tactic saved the district significant construction dollars.

Oakville Senior High "Universal" Lab

Oakville Senior High “Universal” Lab


Oakville Senior High Science Wing Layout


Three – Use computers as instructors

Thomas Haney Centre in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, uses computers as research assistants in a self-paced, self-directed learning program. Eighth graders work beside seniors in a large. Open lab space, with centralized storage and distribution of materials and equipment. Wet services are situated along the perimeter, and the interior has recessed floor outlets for electricity and computer networking. This environment offers plenty of opportunities for computer-based research, as well as freewheeling student collaboration.

Students at Work in Open Lab

Four – Make room for independent activities

Robert A. Millikan and Long Beach Polytechnic high schools in Long Beach, Calif., both have large spaces that students can use to work independently on projects that require more time than one class period to complete. Individuals and small groups can reach the project space, which is adjacent to dedicated labs, without passing through a classroom. Tables, utilities and perimeter countertops make it easy for them to work during free periods without interrupting classroom teaching.

Polytechnic High School Project Space

Polytechnic High School Project Space

Five – Add technology for a “labless” lab

Augusta Middle School in Augusta, Kan., has large 24- and 48-student science and technology centers instead of traditional science labs. Teams of two students study at computer work stations in self-paced programs. The computer presents the curricula, asks questions, provides feedback and grades student performance; the classroom teacher acts as a facilitator, helping students make the most of the computer’s ability to explore ideas.

Perimeter work surfaces provide room for occasional hands-on experiments, offering electrical power and a few sinks.

August Middle School Tech Lab

August Middle School Tech Lab

Six – Create flexible space with movable tables

Teachers at Mehlville Senior High School in St. Louis County, Mo., designed integrated lab/classrooms. Perimeter countertops, sinks and utility connections allow the movable tables to be grouped at the sinks – or anywhere else in the room – to provide work and demonstration surfaces. Recessed floor outlets for electrical power and computer networks add even more flexibility. Computers on carts can be connected at numerous table locations. This flexible setup allows virtually any course in Mehlville’s integrated science curriculum to be taught in any room.

Mehlville Senior High Botany Overall

Mehlville Senior High Flexible Lab/Classroom

Mehlville Senior High Computer on Cart

Mehlville Senior High Computer on Cart