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The Importance of Planning School Science Facilities

Science is a hands-on subject in which students experience science by carrying out investigations. Generally these investigations require equipment and materials to be set up before a class starts and taken down when the class ends. Planners should determine the appropriate cost of new or renovated science facilities before budgets are set as their costs differ a lot from standard classrooms.

“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”
– Sir Winston Churchill

Most educational facility planners are familiar with Churchill’s comment, however, this concept is nowhere more valid than in the planning and design of science facilities. Unfortunately, the budgets for school science facilities are often set well before any real planning has taken place and are set by those who have never taught science and, therefore, do not know the appropriate questions to ask.

An eminent educational facility planner recently asked me about the recommended formula for determining the number of science lab/classrooms needed for a high school (Appendix I of the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, Second Edition). That formula determines the number of such spaces by calculating the number of students likely to be taking science each year, dividing that number by 24 (the maximum number of students in a science class for safety), dividing that number by the number of class periods in a day, then dividing that number by a factor of say 70%. My questioner indicated that his school district clients would not allow the use of the 70% factor because that would leave expensive space vacant for 30% of a day. Clearly these clients do not understand how science is taught.

Science is a hands-on subject in which students experience science

Astrometrics Lab in Entry Tower

by carrying out investigations. Generally these investigations require equipment and materials to be set up before a class starts and taken down when the class ends. Of course, a teacher could do this during class time, using the first, say, ten minutes of the class period to set up and the last ten minutes to clean up, leaving the students time to do whatever high school students might be inclined to do with unsupervised and unstructured time in class. However, if a typical class period is, say, 50 minutes long, the set-up and take-down time then occupies 40% of the available teaching time. Knowing this I suspect most schools would opt to have the set-up and take-down time take place when students are not in class.

Student Project Space

In another recent example, the science faculty of a suburban high school spent many hours with a science facility planner developing the ideal spaces and arrangements of spaces that would serve their district’s hands-on, inquiry-based approach to science education. Included in the resulting space program were long-term student project spaces and small group meeting rooms in which students could plan and carry out projects which would take more than a single class period. Once the programming effort was completed, a “project executive” took control of the design and construction process. This resulted in a larger, more expensive and less efficient building that omitted the project spaces and the small group meeting rooms and separated the lab/classrooms from the centralized prep and storage spaces which they had originally been programmed to surround. Neither the “project executive” nor the school board he served understood the need for the project and meeting spaces nor the safety issues involved in separating the prep/storage areas from the lab/classrooms they served. Thus what could have been a wonderfully flexible and functional facility was reduced to something barely adequate for twenty first century science instruction.

In the mid 1990s a group within the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) set about developing a national guideline for the planning and design of school science facilities. To avoid reinventing the wheel, the group researched guidelines published by various states as well as some foreign countries. Maryland, Texas, California, North Carolina and the United Kingdom had published fairly extensive guidelines and other U.S. states including Connecticut, Florida and Indiana had some less extensive guidelines for science facility design. In virtually all cases, the maximum safe class size was recommended to be 24 students and the minimum floor area per student in the teaching space ranged from 45 to 60 square feet. Subsequent detailed research by Dr. Sandra West, a member of the planning group, revealed that significantly more science classroom accidents occurred when either the number of students per class rose above 24 or the floor space per student dropped below 60 square feet. The first edition of the resulting book, the NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities, published in 1999, recommended a maximum class size of 24 and a minimum floor area per student of 60 square feet for high school lab/classrooms. This position has been adopted by NSTA.

Science teaching in the twenty-first century is considerably different

Biology Lab/Classroom

from the science teaching most of grew up on. The teacher no longer spends several class periods lecturing to students and then sending them to the lab on Thursday afternoons where they are given a recipe, tools and ingredients and expected to recreate the same experiment in two hours. Current practice is very much hands-on. A teacher may begin a class session by introducing a concept in a more or less traditional classroom setting, but then move quickly into a hands-on activity in a different area of the same room. Following this activity the class may reassemble in the “classroom” portion of the space for a discussion of the activity they’ve just experienced. It has been estimated that this “learning by doing” approach results in 40% more hands-on science experiences than the old, traditional lecture then lab format.

Another type of activity also often occurs in today’s science classes: the teacher poses question (“What impact might a new bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis have on the native flora and fauna in the area of the new bridge?” for example), then sends the class forth to answer the question. The students may be grouped in pairs, or in teams of four, say, and each team may head in a different direction to answer the question.

Small Group Meeting Room

Some may start by sitting down in a small group meeting room and planning their investigation, others might get on the Internet to determine what is already known about this subject. During the days and, possibly, weeks that follow, students may take field trips to the proposed site of the bridge, interview scientists at local universities, raise fish and subject them to the types of stresses they might encounter during construction, etc. As the project reaches its conclusion, the teams will document their findings and then present them to their classmates. The theory here is that people retain a small percentage of what they’re told, a slightly larger percentage of what they read, a much larger percentage of what they do, and a significantly greater percentage of what they teach.

You would be right to imagine that such an approach to science education could require much different facilities than those you experienced as a high school student. Combination laboratory/classrooms, which allow students to move between discussion and hands-on activities and back again, are now the primary learning spaces. Flexibility of furniture arrangement is critical. However, as many of the student activities and projects take more than a single class period, places to set up apparatus and leave it set up (project spaces) are needed. For safety, these spaces need to be

View Windows in Prep Room

View Windows in Prep Room

adjacent to the primary lab/classroom and to a corridor and should have large view windows between the project space and its surroundings to allow for supervision. The area of such project spaces is in addition to the recommended 60 square feet per student for the lab/classroom.
The size and location of prep and storage rooms are also critical to good and safe science instruction. These should be immediately adjacent to the lab/classroom with doors leading directly between the two. They should also have view windows into the adjacent lab/classroom for supervision when the teacher is in the prep area and students are in the lab/classroom (students should not be in the prep/storage area). The NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities recommends a minimum of ten square feet per student for prep and storage space in addition to the space for the lab/classroom. Teachers should not have to haul materials and equipment through the corridors to a remote lab/classroom as this can easily constitute a safety hazard to all occupants of the school.
With energy conservation and sustainable design driving new construction, it is important to understand that both the location and equipping of the science facilities can have a major impact. Science facilities should have their own ventilation system so that the odors released by certain investigations are not recirculated throughout the school. Some science spaces require fume hoods which also need their own exhaust systems and, as a result, make-up air to replace the exhausted air. Fume hoods tend to be the biggest energy hogs in a science facility, both from basic operation in which they remove air from a science space which must be replaced and conditioned, and because many hoods are left operating 24/7. Minimizing the number of fume hoods, centralizing make-up air units, and centralizing the separate ventilation system required for science can save both energy and many dollars in the construction budget. Turning fume hoods off when not in use will save significant amounts in operating costs. House AdjacenciesFurther, centralizing science centralizes the plumbing required including backflow devices and water heaters to temper water for the safety shower/eyewash units. In schools with smaller “schools within schools” or “house” designs, the science facilities can serve as the hub of a radiating scheme (see diagram).

Finally, science education doesn’t need to end at the door to the science lab/classroom. Many schools have extended science education throughout the school with such ideas as creating an astrometrics lab (elaborate sundial) in an entry tower, installing a water barometer in a stairwell, or retaining and enhancing an existing wetland as a teaching tool. One school in the Denver area has a resilient tile floor in a fractal pattern, another in St. Louis has paw prints of various animals set in a courtyard walkway, a school in the Boston area replaced several ceiling tiles with clear lexan and installed lights so that students could see the many hidden building systems above the ceiling.

Planners who understand these various factors can then begin to determine the appropriate cost of new or renovated science facilities before the bond issue is submitted for a vote. A typical history classroom may be only 900 square feet and will not have the specific casework and utility requirements of a science space. English classrooms will not require significant prep and storage spaces with casework and utility requirements, but science lab/classrooms will. In general, a science lab/classroom will cost about 3.4 to 3.75 times as much as a history classroom based on the additional area required and the cost of the casework, equipment and utilities required. This information must become part of the budgetary planning for science long before the bond issue is passed and construction begins.

In preparation for this article, the author researched published guidelines for high school science facilities. Unfortunately, much of what was found was not particularly encouraging. For example, New York State’s Building Aid Guidelines, updated in July 2004, require a minimum area of 1,000 square feet for high school science classrooms (including prep and storage space) for general and earth science and 1,200 square feet for biology, chemistry and physics spaces housing 24 students. The United Kingdom’s Designing and Planning Laboratories L14, dated March 2000 gives as “a useful rule of thumb” the allowance of 3 square meters (32.28 square feet) of “free floor area” per student of age 16 or more. I assume that “free floor area” does not include the space occupied by fixed casework and equipment. Ireland’s “General Design Brief for Post-Primary Schools,” published in February 2000, suggests 91 square meters (979 square feet) as appropriate for 24 students for “Science Laboratory & Preparation Area.” A “Typical Layout Plan of Science Laboratory Room” dated November 2006 from the Republic of the Philippines shows a 18 meter x 7 meter space (1,356 Square feet) housing 48 students, a “control room,” “storage” and two toilets (28.25 square feet per student total).

The unfortunate likely results of insufficient space and inadequate science facility design will be increased accidents caused by overcrowding and unsafe handling of materials and equipment, lawsuits in which board members, administrators and science teachers are accused of negligence, and less hands-on science education for our students.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cathy Capon

    THis all looks fascinating. I teach at an all girls private school in South Africa. My colleague has been asked to map out his wishes for new labs in teh Science and Biology departments. ANy advice for him seeing as you have just completed one? He also wants to have both teaching and lab space in ONE teaching venue.

  2. Pingback: Science Spaces for Project-Based Learning | Inside/Out Architecture

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