Planning the Middle School Science Classroom

Instruction: Science teaching has changed significantly in the past five years or so. Once, the teacher lectured to students; now, the teacher is a facilitator who suggests problems to students and encourages them in ways to use the scientific method to solve these problems. A significant portion of the middle school science curriculum, therefore, should be inquiry based, and the facilities provided to serve this curriculum must support this approach.

Size: The two essential commodities needed in a middle school science classroom are space and flexibility. Avoid fixed casework and inflexible space. National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) standards recommend a minimum of 45 sq. ft. per student (wall-to-wall) or 1,080  sq. ft. for a 24-student science classroom. Add 10 sq. ft. per student for preparation and storage space connected to the classroom. The ceiling should be not less than 10 ft. above the floor.

Shape: A good middle school science room should be rectangular, but closer to square in shape. Long, skinny rooms do not provide the flexibility and clearances necessary for safe, inquiry-based science instruction. Two entrances are recommended. The preparation/storage room should be adjacent and connected to the classroom (with its own entrance from the corridor, if possible).

Adjacency: Middle school science curricula involve some physical science, life science, earth and space science, and science and technology. Consider locating the science classroom immediately adjacent to the technology lab to permit joint usage of both spaces by the two curricula.

Storage: The broad range of subject matter involves an equally broad range of materials, equipment and activities. Storage cabinets and storage space for a variety of items is essential. Counters should have a variety of base cabinets with drawer units (including shallow drawers for posters and other flat items); open space beneath counters for storage of large, heavy objects; and cabinets with adjustable shelving. Walls should also be used for shelving and for storage cabinets with hinged, solid front doors.

Lighting: Lighting should be three tube fluorescent fixtures with parabolic grid lenses. Pendant, indirect fixtures, popular in current classroom design, tend to bounce light around the space and wash out images on projection screens and are not recommended. Switching the three tubes in the fixtures so that one, two, or three tubes can be on at one time gives a good measure of room light control.

Casework and Sinks: Fixed perimeter casework allows the interior space to be as flexible as possible. Four large, deep perimeter sinks, with hot and cold water, for a classroom serving 24, is probably adequate (at least one sink should satisfy the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act [ADA]). One “RinseAway” model sink, with a 72-in.-long, recessed, molded fiberglass top sloping to a drain, allows the cleanup of large items. This sink should be equipped with a plaster trap.

Gas: A school I’m working with in Denver carried out an experiment teaching their entire middle and high school curriculum for one year without gas; they found that they did not miss it. New hotplate designs are small, draw relatively little electrical current, and are quick to heat and then cool off after use.

Furniture: Rectangular, movable student tables provide the most flexibility for a wide variety of inquiry-based programs; they can be arranged for lecture mode, or for small group or individual projects. Table construction should be sturdy; pay particular attention to the joint between the leg and the frame. Some very sturdy, metal-framed tables have recently come on the market.

Surfaces: Tabletops and countertops should be of epoxy resin for durability and resistance to chemicals. Using a 3/4-in. thick top can make the heavy tables easier to move around. A table for two students should be at least 21 in. deep by 54 in. wide (24 in. x 72 in. is better) and 30 in. high for microscope work. Perimeter counters should be 36 in. high except at the accessible station.

Technology: Many schools are moving to laptop computers, which take up very little space on a countertop and can be stored in the prep room in a lockable cabinet with plug strips for recharging batteries. Wiring for Internet and local area networks will still be needed until the bandwidth of wireless networks is significantly improved for full color, motion displays. A three-cell, surface-mounted raceway above the backsplash of the countertop can distribute power, data, and coaxial cable at the perimeter. The coax allows a student to plug in a mini-video camera anywhere in the room and project an image, using a video/data projector, on a large projection screen for the whole class to view. The same projector could also project a computer screen image from anywhere in the room.

Power: Recessed floor boxes, with hinged covers that are flush with the floor surface when closed, can bring power, data, and video connections to the interior of the room. Provide at least six, 20-amp power circuits in a science classroom.

Science classrooms should have a higher level of fresh air ventilation than a typical classroom; the prep space and storage room should also be ventilated with at least six air changes per hour. At the middle school level, a fume hood is probably not necessary.

Safety: Provide a combination safety shower/eyewash unit, with the eyewash bowl and shower handle lowered to ADA reach standards. If a floor drain is provided, it must be equipped with a trap primer to eliminate odors. When the safety shower is used or tested, a custodian still must mop the area, whether or not the drain is provided.

James T. Biehle, AIA,  is president of Inside/Out Architecture, Inc. in Clayton, Mo. He is currently the chair for the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education. He is co-author of the recently released NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities and the Designing Science Facilities appendices of the NSTA Pathways to the Science Standards in 1996, 1997, and 1998. He can be reached via e-mail at

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