What Goes Around, Comes Around

In the early 1990’s many middle and high schools

Typical Tech Lab

Typical Tech Lab

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 work stations, and canned technology courseware. This was based on the rationalization that, since America is moving from an industrial economy to an information economy, the need to understand how computers can interface with a number of engineering and scientific disciplines is essential. Unfortunately, this converted modern, clean, high tech space remained in the industrial arts portion of the building, usually far away from the cleaner, quieter, academic areas.

Students flocked to the new tech labs because they were unique environments within the school, utilized 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. Strangely, school administrators often failed to make the connection between these popular tech labs and their science programs. They failed to see that the tech lab programs were applied science and that a logical connection between the theory taught in the classroom and the hands on nature of the tech lab should be encouraged.

The National Science Education Standards, published in 1996, suggests that inquiry-based. hands-on science  teaching is a national science education goal. Educators have been saying for years that a person retains about 5% of material learned by listening and nearly 90% of material learned by doing. As a child, I was encouraged to make things. I built a treehouse in the side yard, a “hut” in the back, and, with a good friend who went on to work for NASA, a robot which we entered in the local science fair. My father provided the tools and much of the materials and occasional guidance in how to use a tool or make a particular electrical connection; but, for the most part, the concepts and the solutions were mine. I learned by doing and took that knowledge forward into my career as an architect.

The new science standards suggest a science education model much different from the “cookbook” approach in which the teacher walks into the lab and tells the students, “Today we will be doing lab number 24.  Here are the materials you will use.  Here’s a set of directions to follow.  And here are the results you should achieve.”  In the new model, the teacher will write a question on the markerboard and tell student teams to use the scientific method to design their own investigations and 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.

With this type of science education model, a different type of space is becoming a necessity.  Students need a large place where they can conduct their investigations, build their apparaatur, and leave it in place for the time necessary to carry out the investigations.  For a physics course, this space might require the ability to cut and join wood, metals and other materials, a high space for apparatus taller than the standard 8′ ceiling, bare concrete floors, and a dust collection system.  For a biology course, a water source and a floor drain may be needed plus flexible lighting to grow plants or animals.  Integrated curricula may encourage an engineering solution to the problem which could require computer-assisted design and drawing as well as computer-based monitoring and testing apparatus.  Hey, does anyone know where we could find a space like this in the school?

Remember the old, unused, dirty shop down in the industrial arts area?  That would work well since it already has the power and dust collection system and probably also has water and drains.  The shops in my old school didn’t have ceilings, had high-bay space and were large enough to permit a number of projects to occur at once.  And, as I remember, the shop teacher was more of a facilitator than a “sage on the stage.”

Several schools have turned to the vocational shops for the types of spaces

Project Space, South Carroll High School

Project Space, South Carroll High School

needed in today’s inquiry-based, hands-on science.  South Carroll High School in Carroll County, Maryland, constructed a “clean room” space for computers and planning within the building envelope of a large vo-ag shop on campus.  Most of the high bay space remained a shop with large, overhead doors, concrete floors, power and water where needed, and floor drains.  Long term student investigations are conducted in this space, assisted by a science teacher facilitator.  Students design their own projects and work with the facilitator to obtain the materials and equipment needed.  The facilitator even helps students write grant applications to fund their work.  Virtually all of the live specimens used in the school’s biology and ecology coursework are grown in this facility and a multi-year wind tunnel experiment is carried out in one bay.

River Oaks Manufacturing Area

River Oaks Manufacturing Area

River Oaks Public School, a K-8 school built in 1991 in Toronto, Ontario, has a very integrated, computer-assisted program combining mathematics, English, social studies and science in a project where the students design, build and market toys.  Student teams must develop a concept, write a proposal to build, market and sell this concept, prepare a business plan, including cost estimates, use computer-aided design and drafting to produce drawings for production of the concept, and build a prototype model of the toy, then develop a plan for mass-production.  Naturally the spaces required for such a program are radically different from the standard

River Oaks Design Area

River Oaks Design Area

classroom.  At River Oaks, they include a glass-enclosed design and manufacturing area with separate space for the computer-assisted activities and heavy duty tables, power and hand tools for building the prototype models and production runs.  The manager of this facility is a facilitator, giving the students the appropriate input and supervision, but not telling them “how.”

At Durham Academy, in Durham, North Carolina, the new science facilities built in 1992 included a high-bay, concrete-floored student Project Room connecting the two Physics labs.  The Durham Academy Physics curriculum has a strong engineering component and students must design and build

Durham Academy Project Room

Durham Academy Project Room

their own apparatus throughout the year.  This space includes power tools and movable tables, plus a circular stair to a platform above where gravity and pendulum experiments can be carried out.  As part of a recent investigation 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.

Two projects currently in planning and design will provide spaces for hands-on, small group investigations.  Kent Denver School in Englewood, Colorado has included a “Center for Innovation” in its renovations and additions to its Gates Science Center.  This space, located on the ground floor, has large, double doors opening directly outdoors to a courtyard, heavy duty tables and workbenches, heavy duty industrial shelving, a 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 tghem in this space, using hand tools and small machine tools under the guidance of a faculty facilitator.

Troy High School in Troy, New York is adding a two story library and science addition adjacent to their existing vocational wing.  The master plan called for the library to be on the first floor of the addition and the new science spaces to be on the second.  However, during detailed planning for the science spaces, the opportunity to use the adjacent industrial shops in conjunction with the science program suggested that science  be moved down to the first floor and the library be put upstairs.  The space between the new addition and the existing one-story vocational wing will be roofed over and a large, high-bay student project space will occupy this area.  Glass walls, separating the project space from the adjacent corridors, will allow passing students to look down into this exciting area and observe the sorts of projects that their fellow students are involved in.  Skylights and clerestories will allow large amounts of daylight into the project space.  Each science discipline is currently developing plans for the use of a portion of this space.

Dring a conversation I had with an aeronautics design engineer recently, the concept of hands-on science teaching came up.  He stated that he preferred to hire engineers who had been educated in community colleges with vocational programs over those coming directly from more3 traditional educational backgrounds because, he said, the more traditional engineering graduates were afraid to try anything without subjecting their ideas to endless rounds of analysis.   The engineers who had learned by doing were much more eager to try out their ideas in the field, much as the Wright brothers had tried out theirs at Kitty Hawk.  Today’s inquiry-based, hands-on science programs will require more of the “dirty shop” space described above where students can get their hands dirty and build the airplanes and robots of the future.

This article originally was presented at the AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands in November 2000, and also appeared in School Planning & Management magazine in August 2002..

Project Credits:

River Oaks Public School, Oakville, Ontario, Canada.  Architects: Mekinda Snyder Partnership, Inc., Toronto, Ontario.

South Carroll High School, Carroll County, Maryland, USA.  Facilitator: Robert Foor-Hogue (410) 751-3575,

Durham Academy, Durham, North Carolina, USA.  Dr. Herb Lamb, Science Chair, (919) 490-0193,  Inside/Out Architecture, Inc., science facilities consultant.

Kent Denver School, Englewood, Colorfado, USA.  Michael Burnham, Science Chair, (303) 770-7660,  Project architect: Hutton Ford Architects PC, Greenwood Village, Colorado; Inside/Out Architecture, Inc., consulting architect on science facilities.

Troy High School Additions and Renovations, Troy, New York, USA.  John J. Buckley, Coordinator of Mathematics and Science, (518) 271-5438,  Project architect: Mallin Mendel & Associates Architects PC, Albany, New York; Inside/Out Architecture, Inc., consulting architect on science facilities.