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Safer Engineering Instruction in K–12 Labs and Makerspaces: Results From a 2020 National Study

By Dr. Ken Roy

Posted on 2021-06-02

I. About the Study

I recently had the opportunity to work on a research team with two Pennsylvania State University colleagues, Drs. Tyler Love and Phillip Sirinedes. Our research examined a broad spectrum of safety factors directly related to K–12 technology and engineering (T&E), integrated STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)/STEAM (STEM plus Arts), and makerspace facilities and instructional practices. This study used the 2020 T&E Education—Facilities and Safety Survey (TEE-FASS) to collect online survey responses during spring 2020, allowing educators to reflect on their face-to-face teaching experiences from the majority of the 2019–2020 academic year. 

II. Previous Studies

Based on our research, we were unable to identify any recent studies like the current one. Given the inclusion of engineering content and practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the push for a more authentic interdisciplinary STEM focus, this study was long overdue. From our research, we did find some safety studies from other STEM-related content areas that provided valuable insight. A previous research study examining safety in Career and Technical Education (CTE) career clusters by Threeton and Evanoski (2014) included 57 CTE teachers from across Pennsylvania. Some of the key findings from their study are these: 

1. 93% of participating teachers had a safety plan as part of their curriculum.
2. 12% did not provide safety training to students prior to participation in lab activities. 
3. 11% did not require students to complete a safety test prior to working in the lab.
4. 33% did not require students to obtain a score of 100% on their safety tests.  

Furthermore, teachers in their study identified the following as the top five obstacles for implementing safety in CTE classes (starting with the greatest obstacle):

1. Chronic student absences;
2. SPED (special education) modifications/accommodations required;
3. Lack of funding;
4. High class enrollment; and
5. Lack of adequate classroom/lab space.

Additionally, previous research from science education provided some valuable insights about safety in K–12 lab settings. Stephenson, West, Westerlund, and Nelson’s (2003) study included 856 survey responses from science teachers in Texas, with 81 incident/accident report forms also completed. Their findings concluded that safety incidents/accidents increased as follows: 

1. From 8% to 62% as class size increases from <14 to>24 students;
2. From 11% to 66% as room size decreased below 60 sq. ft. per student;
3. From 11% to 47% as room size decreased below 800 sq. ft.;
4. Because 35% did not have adequate safety training; and
5. Because only 69% had a written safety policy.

A follow-up study conducted in 2014 by West yielded similar results.

III. The Current Study

The 2020 T&E Education—Facilities and Safety Survey (TEE-FASS) was developed by making minor modifications to the 2001 Texas Science Safety Survey (Stephenson et al. 2003) to accurately represent more current safety issues unique to T&E instruction and interdisciplinary learning spaces such as makerspaces. The instrument was reviewed by two national STEM education safety specialists and pilot-tested among a small sample of STEM educators and administrators from varying grade levels to make additional changes and establish face validity.  

The national T&E survey conducted during April 2020 was sent to members of the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA), along with state T&E education association affiliate representatives, yielding 718 national responses from 42 states. The survey included questions about the following:

1. Information and demographics;
2. Experience and certification;
3. Classroom conditions;
4. T&E/makerspace/integrated STEM facilities;
5. Teacher and student safety training; and
6. Recent incidents/accidents.

IV. Identified Safety Concerns

Several alarming safety statistics emerged from this study: 

1. A large percentage (52%) of teachers reported having four or more preps per semester, which could place increased safety responsibilities on teachers (e.g., additional setup and maintenance). Specifically related to facilities, there was a noticeable lack of safety zones, access to eyewash stations, fully stocked first aid kits, emergency power shutoff controls, ventilation for soldering, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for welding/casting/molding in spaces facilitating T&E labs.

2. Air filtration is also something that research has indicated districts should invest in for their 3D printers, but were reported absent in this study. (75% reported no 3D printer ventilation.) Emerging studies have found hazardous levels of ultrafine particles are often emitted from desktop 3D printers. Additionally, school nurses, T&E departments, district safety officers, and the local fire marshal should all have a copy of safety data sheets (SDS) for hazardous materials/chemicals found in STEM labs within a school. 

3. A large percentage of teachers noted they did not require a signed safety acknowledgment form; passing of safety tests; use of safety glasses/goggles; securing long hair and loose jewelry/clothing; and wearing of closed-toed shoes before any student was allowed to conduct lab activities. Furthermore, many state statutes require appropriate eye protection, which this study indicates were not being followed.

4. Hardly any teachers (18%) reported testing their eyewash for several minutes every week as called for by the ANSI (American National Standards Institute)/ISEA (International Safety Equipment Association) Z358.1-2014 eyewash/shower standard. 

5. Participants reported receiving an identifiable lack of safety training from their undergraduate teaching methods course (only 54% said they received safety training). Teacher preparation programs and mentor teachers should ensure safety is a core focus for all preservice teachers. 

6. There was also an identifiable lack of safety training provided by school districts. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers (school districts) to train employees (teachers) upon initial hiring and anytime thereafter a new item (e.g., new equipment, new chemical, etc.) that could cause a hazard is to be used in the workplace (STEM lab). Statistical analyses revealed this lack of safety training, along with some of the other items mentioned in this section, significantly contributed to the odds of an accident occurring.

V. Recommendations Resulting From the 2020 T&E Survey Analysis

The following is a list of data-informed recommendations to provide for a safer teaching/learning experience when facilitating engineering practices and integrated STEAM activities in a makerspace or lab:

1. Work with your district safety compliance officer, legal counsel, fire marshal, administrators/supervisors, and teachers to develop a safety program, including protocols, inspections, training, etc.

2. Work with your Board of Education to help develop a safety policy and ensure your class, department, and school policies align with this district-wide policy.

3. Refer to legal resources (e.g., OSHA) and professional resources (e.g., ITEEA, NSTA) for additional information in developing a safety program.

4. Enforce safety policies consistently and fairly.

5. Administer safety training upon initial hire, and again any time a new hazard is introduced (chemical, equipment, etc.) and/or updates are made in a safety plan.

6. Under duty of care, the employer (school district) has a legal and professional responsibility to provide safety trainings.

7. Employees can request in writing to receive safety trainings.

8. Fire code National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code requires 50 sq. ft. per occupant (net square footage) in academic labs and shops. (Research suggests at a minimum 60 sq. ft. limits accident rates.) 

9. At a minimum, conduct an annual safety inspection to make sure your facilities have proper safety controls and work space. (ITEEA website and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [NIOSH] have checklists.)

10. Make sure the instructional space meets all OSHA, NFPA, ANSI/ISEA, and other legal safety standards and better professional practices to make it safer for teachers, students, and observers/visitors.

11. Flush out emergency eyewash sink/shower stations once a week for 1–3 minutes.

12. Check the first aid kit each semester and work with your school nurse to restock it. 

13. Use a UV (ultraviolet) goggle sanitizer with a UV-C Germicidal bulb to sanitize eye protection devices after each individual’s use. 

14. Have at least one or more sinks with running cold and hot water sources in your lab/makerspace.

15. Have a separate lockable/secure finishing or chemical storage room and chemical storage cabinet to prevent student access.

16. Have a lockable/secure tool cabinet to prevent student access when tools are not in use instructionally.

17. Have all students become safety trained and tested, and ask them to sign a safety acknowledgement form before starting any work involving hazardous equipment, tools, chemicals, and materials.

18. Have appropriate taped or painted safety work zones near all machines.

19. Have non-skid strips near machines to prevent slip/fall hazards.

20. Have appropriate ventilation to accommodate particulate and aerosol hazards.

21. Have a wood dust collection system with the intake vent placement at the machine source of wood dust production (when possible to do so safely) to prevent exposure to airborne wood dust.

22. Have the workspace accessible to wheelchair-bound students per ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

23. Have all electrical receptacles ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)–protected.

24. Have easily accessible emergency power shutoff switches.

25. Have a sufficient number of electrical receptacles to eliminate use of extension cords on the floor.

VI. Study Findings and Conclusions

Participants in the 2020 T&E safety study reported that their top five factors for unsafe conditions/accidents in T&E labs included the following:

1. Student failure to follow safety protocols;

2. Overcrowding;

3. Classroom management/discipline;

4. Percentage of students with disabilities in class; and

5. Inadequate facilities.

In addition, a number of statistically significant factors were found to either contribute to or protect against accidents in this study. The full list of those factors can be found in this article posted on the 2020 National T&E Safety Survey Results web page

Most interestingly, as described in the article referenced above, this study found that the following as individual factors did not have a significant impact on reducing the number of accidents that occurred:

1. Undergraduate or graduate teaching methods courses covering T&E lab safety topics;

2. District training upon initial hiring; and

3. Safety training within the past five years provided by the district or an external source.  

However, when a teacher reported completing all three of the aforementioned items resulting in a more comprehensive safety training experience, they were 37% less likely to have had an accident occur within the past five years. This indicates that comprehensive and continual safety training experiences provided by both the teacher preparation programs and the school districts can significantly reduce T&E/makerspace/integrated STEM/STEAM lab accidents within K–12 schools across the country. 

VII. Application Implications for Science, STEM Laboratory, and Makerspace Safety

Given that STEM classes incorporate both science and T&E Education, the findings of this most recent T&E study have critical safety applications. Science and T&E teachers working with STEM labs should review and address all of the recommendations resulting from the 2020 T&E Safety Survey Data Analysis in section V of this blog post for a safer teaching/learning experience. It also will help inform and protect teachers legally under “duty or standard of care” requirements/expectations.  

Additional state-specific findings and journal publications from the 2020 National Technology and Engineering Education Lab Safety Study Data conducted by Drs. Tyler S. Love and Kenneth R. Roy can be found at

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

Safety Blog Acknowledgement. NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally/internationally recognized Technology and Engineering educator/researcher Dr. Tyler Love, assistant professor of Elementary/Middle Grades STEM Education at Penn State Harrisburg, for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary. (E-mail

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