The "Great White" fire in Rhode Island earlier this year was a horror--killing nearly 100 people when rock fans were trapped inside a burning building with too few fire exits. Science laboratory safety expert Jim Kaufman worries that a similar tragedy could befall a school science lab anywhere in the U.S.
"Everybody learned a very sad lesson last summer. ... When you put too many people in a room, and there's a problem, the problem is made worse by the number of people in the room," says Kaufman, founder and director of The Laboratory Safety Institute, a non-profit focusing on science education. "You can be very sure if there's a fire in a science lab that has 35 kids in it, somebody's going to want know where the local fire chief was [to enforce safe occupancy]."
The Rhode Island tragedy may be the latest catalyst that puts administrators and local fire marshals on guard about safety in science labs, but science facilities have been receiving extra attention from school boards and administrators for years.
The National Science Standards, passed in 1995, urge schools to increase inquiry-based science. New state regulations that follow these standards, curriculum changes and surging student enrollment are forcing many districts to renovate or build new science facilities.
And though science facilities are an expensive proposition--costing about 2.5 times more to build than a regular classroom, according to experts--the construction is an opportunity to make dramatic improvements in the science learning and safety environments in a school.
Space is of the Essence
When asked about lab safety, the first thing experts want to talk about is minimum square footage per occupant and appropriate occupancy. The recommendation of the National Science Teachers Association and the Laboratory Safety Institute is that labs have a minimum of 55 square feet of space per occupant in a combined classroom/laboratory and 45 square feet per occupant in rooms that are just used for labs, with a recommended class size of 24 students.
"Studies show if you have more than 24 students in a science class, the accident rate goes up. If you have less than 60 square feet [per occupant] in a combined lab/classroom, the accident rate goes up," says Jim Biehle, president of Missouri-based Inside/Out Architecture, and a co-author of the NSTA's lab guidelines.
Advances in science lab design can go further than meeting minimum square footage to improve safety. Biehle and other NSTA experts favor having all fixed utilities, such as sinks and cabinets, on the perimeter of the room. "Science classrooms need to be extremely flexible; anything that needs to be nailed to the floor should be on the perimeter," Biehle recommends.
Placing moveable lab tables and desks in the center of the room is also recommended. Aside from aiding in the creation of various sized work or experiment groups, limiting the amount of fixed furniture here makes it easier to get to an exit in an emergency.
Adding to the impetus to overhaul high school science facilities is the "Physics First" concept, which rearranges the typical science sequence--so freshmen take physics and upperclassmen learn biology. The trend has prompted many schools to build "universal labs" to accommodate any science course that may be required that semester, or even multiple disciplines during the school day.
A pioneer in universal labs is New Trier Township in Winnetka, Ill. With rapid enrollment growth during the 1990s, the district saw the need to conduct a major capital campaign to update science facilities built as early as the 1930s and as late as 1957.
A plan was developed to either build or renovate all of the district's 19 high school science labs. At the same time administrators wanted to prepare for the possible adoption of Physics First by making all the labs universal. That way, a lab built in a freshman wing could be used for biology one year, but physics the next if the order of science classes taught was changed.
The process began with a 25-page science faculty survey created by architect Steve Cashman of Oakbrook, Ill.-based Cashman, Stahler. The survey was followed by more than 30 design and development meetings with teachers. The prototype was then created.
Each lab is equipped with the necessary safety devices for all the sciences, including fume hoods, showers and eyewash stations. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the 19 labs, the last of which will be finished this summer, are the five-by-eight-foot lab stations that accommodate four students each.
In the center of each table is a turret that holds the electrical outlets, as well as data connections to the school network and an in-room projector.
"When we first started construction, we were traveling around and looking at a lot of schools," says Gerry Munley, science coordinator for the district. "We went to one school in Skokie, Ill., and saw these enormous tables. We all said, 'Wow! We could all live with something like that.' It just gives you enormous space."
While not all science lab experts buy into the concept of the universal lab, they do agree that New Trier has the building process down pat.
The emphasis placed on asking teachers what their requirements are is the first applauded step. "Teachers are very, very creative individuals," says LaMoine L. Motz, past president of NSTA and chair of the organization's task force on science facilities and equipment. "Given the right time, they can really describe their philosophy [and] curriculum needs," she says. Teachers can also take time to determine what they need to do to maintain and support the curriculum.
In New Trier, the teacher-centric lab design was facilitated by two science-lab specialists, architects Biehle and Cashman. What many districts are finding--and often times too late--is that not all architectural firms are created equal when it comes to knowledge about how science needs to be taught today.
"The majority of architects understand building buildings, but I think there are still few architects in our country [who] understand the curriculum of science as inquiry, and how that translates to the building of science facilities for the 21st century," says Motz, who is currently director of the Oakland Science, Math and Technology Center in Oakland County, Mich.
"Don't assume that your architect is a specialist when it comes to what a science lab ought to have," says Dennis Keeney, math and science coordinator at Walled Lake (Mich.) Consolidated Schools, which has also moved toward universal labs. "Pay attention to the guidelines; otherwise you're going to be surprised and disappointed with all the work that goes into something that comes up short in the long run."
Don't rely on the expertise of architects that aren't familiar with the building codes and specifications required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Laboratory Standards regulations and the American National Standards Institute, experts say. Choosing architects without this knowledge has resulted in expensive building mistakes that seem almost comical after the fact, like the builder who wanted to put a restaurant-style fume hood in a high school chemistry lab.
"You really have to have a self-contained unit that's going to handle hazardous material, not an open hood for a barbecue," says Kenneth R. Roy, K-12 director of science and safety for Glastonbury (Conn.) Public Schools, and the president of National Safety Consultants.
Biehle recalls another blunder in which an architect had the fumes from the HVAC system in the chemistry lab being deposited directly into the cafeteria. A lab's self-contained HVAC unit must have an increased number of air changes per hour, which means how often the room is completely replaced with fresh air from outside. Appropriate conditioning in the system ensures that the air remains at a comfortable temperature.
Another important tactic that New Trier's science facility team adopted was visiting other schools to get ideas about what they're doing right, and wrong. Superintendent Neil Frankenfield of Monmouth Beach (N.J.) School District, which recently added a new science lab to its one K-8 school, advises asking these questions during the research phase: What would you like that you don't have?; What's working?; What's not working?
School visits and gathering input from teachers, administrators and the community takes a considerable amount of time. But the reality is that this advance work needs to be done before the funding plans are completed, whether they be by bond referendum or other sources.
"I see an awful lot of money going into old designs--like pouring old wine into new bottles--because I don't think there is the proper planning or lead time given," Motz says. "But once you put brick and mortar together, you know how long that decision is going to stand."
While leading-edge science labs have all the appropriate safety equipment, they are not defined by safety alone. Here are three things you can do to ensure your own district's labs are tres chic:
ACCESSORIZE Extras can make the student experience and teacher's job safer and more pleasant. A recent construction project at Monmouth Beach School in New Jersey equipped teacher Frank Keiser with a number of goodies. Among them are both hot and cold water, a vented fume hood, a dishwasher and dryer for handling glassware--and a small refrigerator that "takes care of those animals like sharks that are half dissected, where students need to come back to finish up, and so the rest of the faculty doesn't hang me [because of the smell]," says Keiser, who teaches sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
MIX AND MATCH Often overlooked in science facility design, says architect Jim Biehle, "is the ability to go outside and use the environment to improve science education." Locations with plenty of outside light for growing things and direct access to the outdoors, where the world becomes the classroom, are ideal. For example, Biehle knows of schools with doors opening up onto a prairie, wetlands or an area forest.
KEEP UP WITH THE LATEST TRENDS In many ways, state of the art in science classrooms and labs mirror advances in other subjects. The use of document cameras and ceiling-mounted projectors, along with retractable screens and whiteboards, and of course Internet connections and laptops, are integral to daily learning in the most elaborate of labs. Electronic data probes and microscopes that can be used for computer collection of data and viewing of results are also part of the high-tech lab.
Science Lab Building Trends
Rebecca Sausner, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.