The Furniture of Science

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.

While 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 Ground

Today’s middle school science classrooms have added more laboratory concepts, without going the full distance to student workstations.

For 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, Ind.

Moveable 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.

According 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.

Today’s middle school science classroom/labs may also contain fume hoods, set into the wall or built as an island, that students can gather around.

Triple-track 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

At the high school level, student workstations and pedestals have replaced the long, fixed rows of workstations popular years ago.

Today’s 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.

Variations 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.

Tables offer several advantages. For example, the teacher can specify table heights of 34 to 36 inches, 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.

Fume-hood 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 an accident.

Where Technology Fits In

Computers, 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 computers.

“You 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.”

In 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

More 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.”

When 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 single room.

Combination 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.”

Combination 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. feet.

Configurations 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

Biehle 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.

“Chemistry 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.”

Labs 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.”

As 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 lab.”

All in 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.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.