George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Design Tips for Science Learning Spaces

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

When I was a charter school principal, I had an old building in which I selected a room to be a science lab. I mistakenly thought a room was a room, but thank goodness the science teacher knew what she was doing. I was expecting to say to her, "Here are the keys" and let her prepare the room, but instead, she had a few questions for me: "Where do we keep the chemicals safely?" "What about toxic fumes or eye wash stations?" "How do we store the glassware?" "What about set up and clean up time?" and, "Where do we store the microscopes, triple beam balances, and temperature probes?" I quickly realized that science learning required a lot of specialized learning spaces.

I wish I had the advice then of Dr. Sandra West from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She was a top-notch high school science teacher and now she is an associate professor of biology. Dr. West is one of the co-authors of the National Science Teacher Association Guide to Planning School Science Facilities. I asked her to share some of her wisdom about science learning spaces to help teachers and administrators to plan for adequate science learning from the ground up. And also, how to fix inadequate spaces so that science learning can continue unimpeded.


Edutopia: When it comes to science learning spaces, what is the biggest mistake schools and teachers make?

Dr. West: Schools do not have enough science classroom/labs. For some strange reason the number of science rooms is typically based on an enrollment that almost never incorporates an adequate number of science rooms. For example, a recent conversation with a school architect revealed that the typical plan submitted to a school district for a high school for 2,000 students, where 17 science teachers are needed to teach the three-year science requirement that only 12 science rooms are planned. So, architects and schools plan for only 12 rooms and the first year the school opens with five teachers who have no rooms and have to "float" from room to room on carts. This immediately creates safety and instruction quality problems. The National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) recommends there be a science classroom/lab for each science teacher.  

It's neither safe nor effective science instruction when science teachers have to move from room to room (float) on a cart. The carts must hold the lab materials, equipment, and chemicals to conduct the activities or investigations through crowded hallways during passing periods. There is no time to set up the room for the activities or labs so instructional time is lost and the teacher has to struggle with setting up in a different and unfamiliar room each period.

What are the requirements for an elementary science learning space, middle school science learning space, and high school science learning space?

Dr. West: One problem is that most of the current science classroom/labs are too small. The NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities recommends 60 square feet per student for grades 6 to 12. For grades PK to 5, NSTA recommends 45 square feet per student. This means that if the science room is built for 24 students, then no more than 24 students will occupy that room in any one period. There are also state fire codes for "room occupancy" that allows only a limited number of students in a science lab based on the size of the room (check your local requirements). Safe egress during a fire is a requirement.

With limited time and money, what are a couple of things that a typical science teacher could do to create more space for science learning?

Dr. West: One thing science teachers can do is to clean up and organize the science materials already in the science room and science storerooms. Free up space by clearing out the shelves and drawers of items that can be collected from students each year such as plastic jugs, toilet paper rolls, etc. Another thing would be to schedule an appointment with your principal for a tour of your room and science storerooms.

Then, demonstrate to your principal (not just tell) the storage needs and ask for his/her input of how those needs can be met to enable safe and effective science instruction for your students. An easily accommodated request could be something as simple as some extra shelves for the shelving units.  It typically comes with only five shelves per unit, but seven are really needed so glassware is not stored higher than eye-level or stacked on cardboard on top of a layer of glassware.

What do you think about dedicating a room for science learning so all teachers can rotate in using it?

Dr. West: Students need to "do" science regularly and students need to be able to move seamlessly back and forth from lab group investigations to whole class discussion sense-making. This is best done in a combination lab/classroom, not a room with only lab benches. Elementary students should use 80 percent of their science time "doing" science in "hands-on" lab or field activities. Grades 6 to 8 should use 60 percent and grades 9 to12 should use at least 40 percent of the time in hands-on lab or field activities.

Aside from assigning contiguous rooms, what other space considerations should math and science teachers have?

Dr. West: Following the best-practice format of concrete to pictorial to abstract in both math and science instruction requires having "stuff" to teach/learn with, such as math manipulatives or simply grocery store items. So, adequate storage and adequate work surface areas are as important in math as they are in science. However, the storage must also be specifically designed for storage of the materials, manipulatives, and equipment for each discipline. Physics uses equipment such as bicycle wheels, six-foot air tracks and other equipment that doesn't fit in typical shelving or cabinets. Chemistry needs obviously needs safe, secure, properly ventilated chemical storage not in the preparation room, glassware, ring-stands, etc. Biology needs microscopes, specimens, glassware, chemicals, etc. Earth Science needs stream tables, rock and mineral samples, glassware, rainfall gauges, etc. Grades PK to 8 teach all sciences and need equipment from all of the disciplines.

In Summary

Well-designed science learning spaces must include enough room to perform laboratory experiments, investigations, and sense making, but they also must include enough room to safely store all of the laboratory equipment and consumables. As Dr. West reminded me, "Form must follow function. The design of the science facilities can either enhance or impede effective science instruction." De-cluttering and increasing storage can increase the science learning space to some extent, but ultimately designing the science classrooms/labs according to NSTA standards in the first place is the best way to go.

What tips can you share to for improving science learning spaces? Please share in the comments section below.

Was this useful?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kytchr16's picture

The thought here is wonderful, but unrealistic. Labs are expensive, even combination lab/classrooms. And architects and engineers rarely consult the science teachers for input when designing new science labs. Benches go where water and gas pipes are most convenient. The labs are central to the department so they can be shared. If construction goes over budget, the first thing to go is storage. And don't even talk about teaching in an older building or one not even built with a lab in the first place. You are stuck with whatever has been hammered together. I've had to argue to get proper chemical storage and fume hoods put in place in some schools.

Instead of talking about it, put some kick to it. Start educating architects and engineers about the importance of proper lab space. Do the same for boards of education and legislators. The teachers need some push to help us get these types of labs. We can't do it without money to make it happen.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Kentucky Teacher:

Well, we have to start somewhere. My friend Dr. Sandra West is an advocate of exactly what you are talking about. If schools do not consider science learning spaces before the schools are built, making the changes afterwards is next to impossible. Then we are stuck with adapting to the building rather than the other way around according to Churchill. I am once again faced with getting a science program off the ground in a building not designed for it, so I know your pain. Send my post to all of your architect friends and administrators. Let's get the ball rolling!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

engineerteacher's picture
Mathematics & Science Teacher in Rural Appalachia

Thank, Mr. Johnson, for a great article. I've taught physics in a one-room trailer for all 8 years I've been a teacher and have even shared the space for the past two years with my school's art teacher (an arrangement that actually works out quite nicely). So I can only dream of a large science room! But rather than complain about it, I just try and make the space as inviting for innovation and creativity as possible and then to do whatever it takes to make science - and especially labs - as fun and impactful to the students as I can. I find the best way to do this is to allow students to design their own experiments, given the limited amount of equipment we have and to extend the "lab space" to the outdoors as much as possible. You will certainly not get an argument from me that the space can have a significant impact on the quality of the science being taught. Nevertheless, as long as what is being taught in the room - regardless of layout - is student centered, inquiry focused, and highly engaging to the students (and also project based in my case), you can have great results. So, if the powers to be ever decide to build my school real science lab, you can be sure I'll be at the front of the line to talk to the architects. In the meantime, I'll continue to make the most of what we have, with the confidence that my students are learning physics at a depth that is on par with much better resourced schools or districts.


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.