Science learning does not have to stop at the classroom door. A well-designed construction project takes as many opportunities as possible to give students additional scientific stimulation. A periodic table on the ceiling of a chemistry lab/classroom, footprints and fossils of amphibians and animals in a courtyard sidewalk, and a tessellation pattern in the floor tile extend science learning beyond the classroom door. These examples are only a small sample of good ideas that enhance schools around the country. The best part of these ideas is that they are inexpensive or free, if incorporated into building planning in the early stages.
In a Denver school for the gifted, the architect included a fractal pattern in the resilient floor tile, generated by a mathematical program developed by a colleague. When the contractor had finished the floor, the architect found two incorrectly installed tiles. The first was a mistake by the flooring contractor and was corrected; the second was the architect’s error in translating the results of the computer program. This one was left in place and the architect added a sign on the wall of the space describing fractal patterns, indicating that one tile in the pattern was incorrect, and offering a cash reward to the first student who could determine which tile was incorrect and explain why. This clever enhancement added nothing to the construction cost of the building.
During a renovation of a 1930s era school in St. Louis, the science teachers requested that a model of the solar system be included. A local model builder fabricated the planetary models and a local artist painted the Sun in a corner of the new science room. The planets were to one scale and their separation was at a different scale; the architect added a sign on the wall explaining the concept of scale and why two different scales were required for the solar system model. The total cost of this unique enhancement was $1,500.
An independent school in Massachusetts replaced several of the standard ceiling tiles with pieces of clear acrylic and added lighting above the ceiling so that students could see the various pipes, ducts, and wiring of building support systems normally hidden from view. The added cost was for several pieces of acrylic and two inexpensive light fixtures. The same school had the contractor install a clear acrylic tube in the stair tower. The tube was ruled and filled with water to act as a barometer.
In visiting new school science facilities around the country I have encountered dozens of similar ideas ranging from a simple sundial created with a flag in a stair tower to a whale skeleton hanging in an entry atrium. At the same time I have observed an equal number of opportunities missed where no one suggested to the design architect that a simple enhancement of the basic design could create additional science learning opportunities for students.
This is an overused, trite phrase, but when planning new or renovated science facilities, science teachers should think outside the box, imagining “cool” ideas that could be incorporated in the design for little or no additional cost. This thinking must take place early in the planning process, at a time when the architect has not yet really finalized his or her design, or at a time when a little “tweak” could add significantly to learning opportunities without adding much, if any, cost. One caution, however, is that such ideas should be discussed with the design architect to avoid inadvertent building or fire code violations.
A prime example of creative thinking is the main entry tower at Kent Denver School’s new science center in Colorado: A teacher saw the round tower in the architect’s schematic design and suggested adding a glass lens to the top of the conical roof. The result was an astrometrics lab in an otherwise utilitarian space. So, science teachers, put on your thinking caps and dream a little. Your “far out” idea may provide just the nudge needed to create something special beyond the classroom door.
James Biehle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Inside/Out Architecture, 127 West Clinton Place, Kirkwood, MO 63122, and is coauthor of the NSTA Guide to School Science Facilities.