The National Science Education Standards describe a science curriculum that is much more inquiry-based and hands-on than the science education many of received in school. Providing K-12 science-learning facilities that adapt themselves to a safe, inquiry-based program requires significant amounts of flexible space.
School science space is expensive. Careful planning can save money, provide space that will be adaptable to current and future needs, and include furniture and equipment that will stand up to the abuse that time and yuong people will give it.
Flexibility, sturdiness and usefulness are the three key points to consider.
Inquiry-based, hands-on science involves a lot of moving back and forth between discussion and hands-on activities. It also can involve changing equipment and furniture arrangements often during a class period. A
combination lab and classroom space is essential for this type of instruction.
Anything mailed to the floor will stay in that spot for 40 years or more, making rearrangement of furniture and equipment near any fixed object difficult – therefore, minimize any stationary furniture in the middle of the science classroom. Keep utilities and fixed casework to the perimeter.
Flexibility means movable. “Movable” requires furniture to be sturdy – particleboard casework will not stand the abuse of K-12 students. Since tables will often be moved, they need permanent leg connections: either bolted completely through the leg for wood frames or with welded steel
In middle school and high school facilities, counter and tabletops should be of epoxy or phenolic resin, not plastic laminate. Plastic laminate will not stand up to normal daily wear and tear, but might be acceptable at the elementary level.
Furniture for elementary students needs to be a various sizes since students are of various sizes. A kindergartner may be very small, while a fifth grader may be nearly adult sized. Consider providing separate science rooms for K-2 and 3-5.
Fixed demonstration tables waste space. These are rarely used for demonstrations, take up a lot of space, collect junk, separate the teacher from the students and are expensive. Substitute a rolling table, which can
be moved to a perimeter sink if water is needed, and rolled into the prep room as needed.
Fume hoods are expensive energy hogs that are rarely used. If you must have one, consider furnishing one room with a hood and bringing the students to that room when it is needed or purchasing a recirculating hood that can roll from room to room.
Gas is rarely used. One school I worked with shut off their gas system for a year before plannig their new facilities and discovered that they didn’t miss it. Central gas systems are expensive and require costly emeregency shut-off valves. Considere using butane cartridges when gas is needed.
The money saved by eliminating central gas systems, expensive, fixed casework and rarely used fume hoods can then be used to provide the additional space required for safe science instruction and a separate ventilation system for the science areas to provide the additional required air flow.
Consult the NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities, plublished by the national Science Teachers Association, for more information on planning and fuirnishing flexible and safe school science spaces.
This article was originally published in School Construction News, January/February 2005.