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science learning spaces

I have lost count of the mails and phone calls - "we are refurbishing our science labs at school and wanted some advice...".

Often I find that my answer is "well... I'm not sure I'd have started from there". So maybe some of you might start from here... Hope this helps in some way/s..

By the way, I love and value science at, and for, all ages. Achieving great standards in tests is not enough; students need to develop an interest in science topics, be engaged in them, too - which has proved to be pretty elusive as this OECD / PISA graph shows.

tesla's lab

photo: Tesla's laboratory

This note is to help with that early dialogue of rethinking science learning spaces and places in school, and to provide the usual flurry of take-away-and-do-now ideas, for colleagues just wanting to refresh things a bit.

As ever, I would encourage you all to involve children centrally in this makeover process, whatever generous or impecunious funding you have.

Some destinations to explore:

Some general observations:

Looking at some of the current most-exciting-science-discoveries, it is striking that play and the unexpected are often significant components, as you saw in those two links to Graphene (sheets of graphite that are a single atom thick), its invention and its uses. Indeed there is no shortage of good reflection on the importance of play and uncertainty in science education.

The short version then, is that science learning places need to be agile enough to provide the unexpected, from time to time, and varied enough to be playful quite often. Play matters. They also need to be safe of course.

And performance helps too, we know. Last century I was involved in building what became a very popular web resource of physics simulations. Children were challenged to show their understanding of Newtonian principles with little short videos like this one showing a pretty clear grasp of Newton's 3rd law:

physics on skates

Agility is a helpful byword in learning space design (don't say "flexible", or you get those horrid folding room dividers that never move after the first year). Agility can be achieved in many ways. Fixing the plumbing around the edges, or in single "islands" (as in this example from the "school of the future" in Philadelphia), using portable bunsen burners with their own gas bottles,

Often in schools artwork spills onto all the corridors and walls, but science remains walled-up in it's labs. The excellent Mark Oliphant College in South Australia has made a substantial design effort to spread text from all subject domains around its grounds and these "science posts" below (click to enlarge) are interesting, challenging and effective:

science posts - click to enlarge science posts - click for larger

But science can also fill corridors, display boards and more. Displays of food science and nutritional chemistry sit well in dining areas and labelling up all the plants on the school campus gives a "botanical" feel. I enjoy and recommend this type of sign - shows the plant's original country and what children at school there are like. Just laminate these up as A5 sheets and attach to the plants - makes a huge difference as you walk round.

botany sign

There are so many good free resources available, not just from the students, on the www that having multiple points of focus in the room allows groups to move at different paces. As I have observed elsewhere, three flat panels with Apple TV connected, and all their input wires (VGA, DVI, HDMI, etc) available are far more effective and these days heaps cheaper, that a single Interactive Whiteboard. All of which helps you to meet the Learn3K Rule of Three. Example of the huge number of free resources available? try this question and its accompanying answer. Or this Periodic Table of Videos from Nottingham University - you can see how both would work with a small group around just one of the rooms video screens.


And finally, my own observation has been that specialist science labs are not always used for specialist science work. I have seen far too many children trying to collaborate, present, discuss, share and exhibit in spaces that are designed specifically for science experimentation. Science teaching and science learning needs space, but it needs different sorts of spaces at different times. Historically, because science teachers, like many others in secondary education, are territorial, they have fought for labs ("we need 6 specialist labs"). In practice other combinations of space may be better for everyone, science teachers too.

prof stephen heppell
page last modified Tuesday, January 10, 2017 10:12 AM