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School Science Labs

Some districts bite the bullet to update their antiquated facilities.


Last year, when the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) put Rockland High School in Massachusetts on probation—largely because of its outdated science labs—it didn’t surprise Principal Stephen Sangster.

“The labs hadn’t really been touched since their construction. Some go back to 1959 and the rest to 1972,” Sangster explains. “They were in tough shape. Individual student work areas were worn. Doors would fall off. Occasionally we had to call a plumber to make sure the gas and the water worked safely. It was all in our self-evaluation, and we knew there was a problem across the state.”

Besides Rockland, just south of Boston, five other Massachusetts high schools also found themselves on probation from NEASC, which is responsible for renewing their accreditation (Rockland’s comes due in 2011). And a whopping two-thirds of the almost 100 schools seeking state construction funds over the past year cited aging science labs as a primary target.

LaMoine Motz, a former president of the National Science Teachers Association who has studied the declining state of many school science labs, says Massachusetts is hardly alone in its concerns. “We have a lot of old school buildings in the United States, and science labs feel their age more keenly than other classrooms,” he observes, adding that everything from cabinetry to ventilation systems are showing wear and tear. “A lot of teachers are telling me that their science facilities are in bad need of repair, from leaky faucets to gas jets that don’t work.”

“It’s very common for schools to shut off the gas rather than fix it,” adds Pamela Gray-Bennett, the director of NEASC’s commission on public secondary schools. But Gray-Bennett and others concerned with school science labs also insist that times are changing—propelled by rising state and national science standards and a greater push for the funding to bring those labs into the 21st century.

“There was a time when computer technology was taking up the money, but there’s been a major push for science labs,” says Lowell Shira, the assistant superintendent for business services for the San Lorenzo (Calif.) Unified School District, which opened nine new high school labs this fall and is building six more. “There’s been a lot of activity here in northern California in the past five years.”

Gray-Bennett points out that the evolution of today’s science standards has also meant expanding available laboratory space, both to promote inquiry learning and to leave no science student behind. “What good science instruction was 40 to 50 years ago is not the same as good science instruction now, and there were different expectations of which students were expected to take science,” she notes. “When all students are pushed to achieve at a higher level, they need to have access to science labs.”


The added emphasis also comes in the form of federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind law, which in the 2007-2008 year began requiring states to administer standards-based assessments to students in science in addition to reading and math. The science test results are not being counted as a factor in whether schools make adequate yearly progress under the law, but educators say that schools will be motivated to perform well because the scores will be made public.


“The real world is made up of science, and how we behave in and manage our environment—from natural resources to rainforests—is critical,” adds Motz, who directs science education for Oakland County (Mich.) Schools and consults nationally on designing modern science labs. “So we’re trying to design labs that will invite all kids into science.”

With that goal in mind, Motz recently co-authored a revision of the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities. “The guide really tries to fix the image that science is an area where students do a lab just once in a while,” he explains. “A lot of people felt, ‘Science isn’t important in our curriculum, so why should we improve our lab?’ That attitude is changing.”


Paying the Price

Change doesn’t come cheaply, though. Depending on the region of the country and whether you’re renovating an existing science lab or building a new one, construction costs can reach $150 to $200 per square foot, according to Motz and other experts, an especially daunting proposition, considering that NSTA recommends 1,440 square feet for a lab serving 24 students. Adding laboratory furniture and cabinets can cost another $25,000 to $60,000 per room.

"We have a lot of old school buildings in the United States, and science labs feel their age more keenly than other classrooms." -LaMoine Motz, director of science education, Oakland County (Mich.) Schools

While school districts often raise the necessary funds through construction bonds, Rockland’s superintendent, John Retchless, notes that his high school has had to make do with revenues from renting out facilities. “The issue was how could we do something significant to improve the labs without major sources of funding,” Retchless says.

So this past summer—for $160,000, including an unexpected $25,000 charge to replace outdated plumbing—Rockland renovated the four high school labs that did not use gas lines. All four were designed to be interchangeable for the school’s general science, physiology, biology and physics classes, and the insides were stripped to place the shabby ceiling and floor tiles.

Students returned this fall to find a new layout consisting of a new teacher demonstration station fronting 15 student tables—with epoxy, chemical resistant surfaces and oak bases—that can be arranged to allow groups of four to eight students to work together. The tables replaced the armchairs with miniature writing services and the demonstration stations that had limited student collaboration in the past.

Each room also has a SMART Board and an LCD projector, and electrical outlets hang from the ceiling to better serve students’ increasing use of data-collecting probeware (see “Probing for Answers” sidebar). And while the changes are modest, “the kids are thrilled, and the message to them by giving them this kind of place is tremendous,” says Retchless, who is still trying to find the funds to redesign the chemistry lab at the 600-student school, which will need to be improved by the school’s next accreditation cycle in 2011. “The numbers for aligning an aging chemistry lab to modern standards really shocked us,” he admits.

Scientific Expansion

In San Lorenzo, Calif.—courtesy of its first bond issue in 40 years for the modernization of nine schools—the district is adding 15 brand new labs to its high schools. Each pair of 1,400-squarefoot rooms shares a separate 350-foot preparation space that contains equipment for opening and storing hazardous chemicals, as well as dishwashers and refrigerators. All laboratory drains empty into special disposal areas for hazardous waste. The price tag for two labs and their storage space comes to $1.5 million.

Shira adds that if schools are planning to expand, they would do well to use the new construction for science facilities. “We had a lot of discussion in terms of the most effective way of renovating,” he says. “By the time you take out everything and try to rebuild it, it becomes more cost-effective to build new labs. And we could turn the old labs back into regular classrooms for $25,000 each.”

The new labs contain more compact, movable tables than in the past in order to create smaller learning communities, San Lorenzo’s Shira points out. Lab stations with gas and water fixtures line the perimeter of the room, and the teacher’s station has shrunk to 3 feet by 4 feet from almost twice that length, although an additional demonstration table can be connected as needed. “The teachers like to get out around the room to work with students,” Shira explains. “The large demo table kept them locked in.”

In Wilton (Conn.) Public Schools, meanwhile, the high school is facing the challenge of expanding and upgrading its 900-square-foot labs that lack the infrastructure for today’s technology. “Science involves a lot of real-time collection of data, and the teachers are literally running wires across the tables to plug in the computers, the probes, and the LCD projectors,” says Karen Birck, the board of education chair who has led the campaign for a $20.5 million bond that also will replace the high school’s HVAC system and add a new theater.

Renovations will reconfigure the school’s science wing, increasing five of the labs to 1,200 square feet and one to 1,100 square feet. “I was amazed at how the architectural team moved things around and found the extra space,” she says.

Spacing Out

Making the best use of space is paramount for schools looking to move their labs into the future, says Motz of Michigan. “I want things modular and flexible so that we’re teaching inquiry rather than textbook memorization,” he says. “Not everything needs to be nailed to the floor.”

Motz recommends small utility islands—each equipped with gas, water, electrical and data outlets—to which student tables can be moved so as many as three to five can work in a single hub. The combination of more and flexible space can allow for projects to continue over days or weeks, even as students gather in another part of the lab to focus on more immediate assignments.

Numerous activities take extended time, such as in generating hydrogen gas from magnesium and hydrochloric acid, and in separating proteins and DNA, says Jim Lucey, science instructional leader at Wilton High School. “In the new design, we’ll have areas for that work.”

Architect David Kromm, whose St. Louis-based firm Kromm, Rikimaru and Johansen specializes in school and laboratory construction, says schools which can afford 1,700 to 1,800 square feet have been choosing combination lecture labs, which provide enough space to deliver content to students at the front of the room while allowing them to experiment at front-facing, utilities-equipped counters in the rear. In Fulton (Mo.) Public Schools, Kromm created a complex of such labs and included exits to extend student data gathering outside school.

Designers are also maximizing storage space, putting cabinets behind digital whiteboards, and building high-density storage systems with trays that can be pulled out. “I can increase storage by 100 percent sometimes,” says Mike Lee of American Science and Technology Labs in Calhoun, Ga. “Many schools still go with traditional labs, but now there are a lot more choices.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.