The Furniture of Science
- By Michael Fickes
- February 1st, 2008
science labs become more flexible, the cost of furnishing has become
proportionally less expensive. Changes in the way teachers teach science have
given rise to a new generation of designs for science classrooms and new
approaches to furnishing those classrooms. An increasing preference for
hands-on science instruction has created the need for science laboratories in
middle schools, as well as K-5 classrooms.
the lower grades have begun to employ more specific science equipment, high
school students have seen many of their classrooms, except perhaps for
chemistry labs, acquire more flexible forms of furniture and fixtures. The
introduction of technology into science programs at all levels has also raised
the need for new fixtures and room configurations to accommodate computers.
middle school science classrooms have added more laboratory concepts, without
going the full distance to student workstations.
instance, flexible project rooms or regular classrooms in elementary schools
often feature portable science demonstration carts. “These carts have water
reservoirs, sinks, and perhaps a self-contained Bunsen burner operated only by
the teacher,” says Allen Cradler, a project manager with Fanning/Howey
Associates, Inc., of Indianapolis.
tables allow students to re-arrange furniture, placing tables around the
perimeter of the room, or together in the center of the room to create
presentation areas for science demonstrations. Some of these elementary
classrooms have carpeted areas on the floor, enabling students to sit on the
floor to watch or participate in science demonstrations.
to Michael Schipp, another Fanning/Howey project manager, today’s middle school
science classroom/labs often feature moveable tables with stools that can
accommodate two students working together. At the front of this room, the
teacher works at a demonstration table equipped with water, a sink, and a gas
source. Base cabinets and tall shelving along the perimeter provide storage for
lab materials, samples, and experiments requiring time to complete.
middle school science classroom/labs may also contain fume hoods, set into the
wall or built as an island, that students can gather around.
sliding marker boards have largely replaced blackboards in most classrooms,
allowing teachers to preserve information by sliding a filled board into a
compartment and sliding out a new board.
High School Update
high school level, student workstations and pedestals have replaced the long,
fixed rows of workstations popular years ago.
high school labs tend to employ six four-student stations, available in a
variety of configurations. Rectangular tabletops with preferred epoxy resin
finishes, built-in sinks, and storage underneath have proven popular. So have
square pedestals with mitered corners, sinks, and cabinetry extending out to
the edges of the tabletop surface.
on this theme abut moveable tables to small profile sink stands. These sinks
come with four sides — to accommodate two tables and six sides — to accommodate
three tables in a pinwheel arrangement.
offer several advantages. For example, the teacher can specify table heights of
34 to 36 in., with the shorter tables allowing for the use of chairs (including
wheelchairs) instead of stools. “Many teachers are using high tables without
stools, in the belief that it limits horseplay, as well as the possibility of
accidents when stools get knocked over. But if you want students to stand at
the lab stations, there must be another area in the classroom where they can
sit down for instruction,” says Cradler.
stations, usually on fixed-perimeter cabinetry, and sometimes with built in
hand-washing sinks, perimeter shelving, and triple track marker boards, have
also entered high school classrooms. A newer addition to high school science
furnishings is an emergency eyewash and shower to allow fast action in case of
Where Technology Fits In
too, have entered science classrooms, bringing line-of-sight problems with
them. Early designs set computers on racks above the workstations, keeping them
away from the water and chemicals likely to spill onto the tabletops. But
building the tables up with computer racks prevents students from seeing the
front of the room and the teacher from seeing students sitting behind the
can locate computers on cabinetry around the perimeter of the room,” says
Schipp. “We’ve also put computers on moveable carts and even on work surfaces.
The raised racks are still seen in college and university labs where students
work more independently and sight lines aren’t so important.”
addition to computers, many high school classrooms have begun to incorporate
new presentation equipment such as LCD video projectors. “You can mount these
projectors on a cart or suspend them from the ceiling and use a conventional
projection screen on the front wall of the room,” says Jim Biehle, president of
Inside/Out Architecture, Inc., in Clayton,
MO, whose firm specializes in
designing science classrooms for all educational levels. “These projectors
eliminate the need for large television monitors, which don’t serve as well in
classrooms. The monitors are too small, and students on the other side of the
room cannot see and read them clearly. Another good feature of the projectors
is that you can project an image from a student’s computer onto the screen for
everyone to see. You can also connect a DVD player or VCR.”
Labs With Class
than a decade ago, educators began to favor the idea of flanking a science
laboratory with conventional classrooms, one on each side. “This is a bad
idea,” says Biehle. “Generally speaking, science labs are twice as expensive as
classrooms, because of the plumbing, casework, and technology requirements. And
we’ve often found that the schools use those labs to teach courses other than
science as much as 55 percent of the time.”
the idea first arose, educators believed that teachers would use free periods
to set up labs for later use. But the shortage of general classroom space
altered that plan. As a result, Biehle has come to favor combination science
labs and classrooms, combining laboratory furniture and student desks within a
lab/classrooms not only use space more efficiently, they work better for
teachers. “Today, teachers like to move back and forth from hands-on experiments
to instruction,” notes Biehle. “If the lab is in another room, you have to
change rooms and hope that you don’t run into another class in the lab room.”
lab/classrooms require more space than regular classrooms, of course. According
to Biehle, who also contributed to the writing of the “Pathways to Science
Standards” used by the National Science Teachers Association, combination rooms
should allocate at least 60 sq. ft. of space to each of 24 students, or about
1,440 sq. ft.
and furnishings for combination rooms vary. Some offer peninsula workstations
jutting out from casework encircling the perimeter, with student desks placed
in the middle of the room. Other combination designs place student desks at one
end of the room with the lab stations at the other.
Move and Flex
notes that many of today’s new science labs, whether combined with a classroom
or not, tend to avoid fixing anything to the floors in the middle of the space.
“All the utilities, sinks, gas, and so forth are on the perimeter,” he says,
“with moveable furniture on the floor. This allows you to reconfigure the rooms
however you want and whenever you want.
labs are the exception to this rule. Because you need sinks and gas at
virtually every workstation, you still end up with fixed islands on the floor.
These days, we recommend diamond-shaped islands — in the middle of the floor,
not jutting out from the perimeter. Perimeter workstations can create a trap or
safety hazard, making it difficult to get to a student who has had an accident.
With diamond-shaped islands, you can arrange the lab so that no two students
are back to back,” he says. “Instead, they are at 45-degree angles, and if a
student moves or jumps back, he or she won’t bump into another student.”
for disciplines other than chemistry, however, are receiving design treatments
focused more on flexibility. “It’s important to furnish today’s labs with the
idea of multiple functions,” says Cradler. “You might lose enrollment in
biology, while gaining in physics. So you have to outfit the labs in ways that
can host different curricula.”
more labs become multi-functional, the support space has also changed. Prep
rooms have grown smaller, while large multipurpose resource rooms have appeared
in many high schools. “Setting up single large resource rooms offers savings,”
says Schipp. “You only have to buy one or two refrigerators, one dishwasher,
and you can get along with fewer chemical storage cabinets. Without a large
resource room, you need to buy that equipment for prep rooms serving every
all, as science labs become more flexible, furnishing labs has become
proportionally less expensive. “As we’ve gone away from traditional science
classrooms with long fixed tables to designs where most of the casework around
the perimeter contains sinks and utilities, cost pressures have relaxed,”
Biehle says. “It’s cheaper to build utilities around the perimeter than to pop
it up through the floors. Moveable tables are less expensive as well.”
What about technology
costs? “Those costs have gone up, of course,” Biehle says. Even so, lower costs
for general laboratories can help defray the technology costs, while boosting
the quality of science instruction.