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Some general biology and environmental courses have similar facility needs and can share space. (Lehigh University STEPS Building.) Photo: Halkin Photography

Administrators and facility planners are often faced with the challenge of determining the quantity and types of spaces needed for their science programs. Science facilities pose a greater challenge because of the complexity of the spaces and the emerging pedagogies in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. The curriculum is influenced both by trends in science (external influences) and individual institutional goals (internal influences). External influences come from society at large; the academic institution (college or university) has little or no control over them. Internal influences are those that the institution is able to control and change.

External influences
External influences include growth in the sciences, the needs of industry and employers for skilled and degreed professionals, and the evolving learning modalities of students. Let’s examine them in more detail.

Growth in science enrollment: Institutions need to plan for growth in their STEM programs, and recognizing why enrollment is up provides insight regarding how much and what types of space will be needed in the near future. There are several reasons for growth.

Hospitals and health-related employers need educated workers. Currently there is a deficit in the number of health science graduates vs. the demand, and that trend will continue in the near future (World Health Organization, 2006). As a result, many community colleges and four-year undergraduate programs are experiencing an increase in enrollment in biologic and health-related sciences.

The number of high school students taking science courses has increased in many schools, due in part to the adoption of the "physics-first" program, advocated by ARISE (American Renaissance in Science Education) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The program advocates reversing the order of the traditional biologychemistry-physics curriculum, and starting the sequence with physics. This approach matches the cognitive and kinesthetic development of ninth-grade students and exposes them to tangible, real-world physical experiments, helping to build a foundation for inquiry-based learning. The match between cognitive skills and appropriate subject matter has resulted in an increase in enrollment in science courses at the high school level. Schools that have adopted this program see more science courses taken as electives, and more girls and minorities interested in the STEM courses beyond physics (Physics First, 2006).

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The plaza in front of Jennings Hall at Ohio State University serves as an outdoor classroom. Photo: Emery Architectural Photography

Finally, there has been an increased interest in sustainability, climate, and energy issues, resulting in more undergraduate programs and an increase in the number of students taking biology and environmental science courses (Vincent, 2009).

Industry and employer needs: A lack of supply of degreed professionals has prompted corporations to partner with higher education institutions, either directly or indirectly, to encourage degree programs that feed graduates into their industries. Duke Energy and Siemens Energy recently funded engineering scholarships to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, including a program for promising high school seniors with a declared interest in energy engineering (Duke and Siemens, 2011).

Not only are companies interested in hiring STEM graduates, but trained workers as well. VMware, Corus Consulting, and Canvas Systems recently donated equipment and software to Georgia Southern University's College of Information Technology so that virtualization could be taught at the university. The strategy will save future employers thousands of dollars in training costs and will make Georgia Southern graduates much more competitive in the job market (College of Information, 2011).

The result of these partnerships is an increase in types of degree programs and numbers of graduates in specific science and engineering disciplines.

Student learning modalities: How students learn has been the subject of research for decades. What we can determine with certainty is that our understanding of the ways students learn is evolving. There are several different learning modalities: audio (lecturing), visual, and tactile or kinesthetic. Studies have shown that retention increases more than 600% when a lecture is accompanied by visual or other type of interaction (U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1996). Interactive learning that incorporates all three learning modalities creates more engaged learners and successful educational experiences. As we learn more about what works, teaching facilities need to adapt to address the different ways students learn and accommodate effective instructional methods.

Good or bad, technology has also brought a new level of access by, and expectation from, students. The computer in students’ cell phones is “a million times cheaper, a thousand times more powerful and about a hundred times smaller than” the one computer available at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965 (XPLANE/Economist, 2009). Handheld devices serve not only as computational and research tools, but are also suppliers of specialized scientific and analytical applications. Today's learning environments must incorporate a wide range of learning modalities, encompassing visual, audio, and tactile senses, and create interactive learning environments that appropriately integrate technological tools.

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Transparency allows labs to be easily monitored by faculty. (Lehigh University STEPS Building.) Photo: Halkin Photography

The better an institution understands the external influences on its curriculum, the easier it will be for the institution to define its needs.

Internal influences
Influences that are under the educational institution's control are typically a matter of funding, policy, and/or preference. For our purposes, they are divided into five categories: utilization, learning activities, research integration, operations, and safety. These can start to define solutions for planning for a client's curriculum.

Utilization: While intuition tells us that laboratories are among the more highly utilized facilities on a campus, a utilization analysis will confirm how often facilities are actually used. The utilization rate is defined as the number of hours a teaching space is occupied compared with the number of hours the room can reasonably be considered available. As a rule of thumb, the utilization rate of a lab should not exceed 65% if enrollment growth is expected. Once utilization reaches 85%, the lab is considered at its maximum capacity for scheduling, since class change-over and lab set up need to be accommodated. Furthermore, utilization over 85% is discouraged, as back-to-back scheduling limits interaction and informal discussion between faculty and students.

One way to increase lab utilization is to consider sharing opportunities among courses. For example, some general biology and environmental courses have similar needs in terms of seating and equipment. Advanced courses in chemistry, geology, and environmental sciences can often share analytical instruments within a lab. Sharing lab space is certainly a viable option for many introductory courses.

Class size will also have an impact not only on the design of the lab space, but the number of lab spaces as well. Most states have guidelines regarding class size, but best practices and safety should predominate in the planning process. We often find that institutional standards assign the same amount of space per student to chemistry labs as to biology labs. This practice is not recommended, as chemistry labs need to incorporate more safety equipment, i.e., fume hoods, than required for general courses.

Learning activities: The manner in which learning takes place depends on the philosophy and pedagogies of the department. This applies to activities both inside and outside the classroom.

Most of today’s science programs recognize the importance of project-based learning and teaching scientific inquiry. Organizations such as Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) advocate planning spaces for active learning and student engagement. Rather than teaching a scientific exercise with specific outcomes, the approach focuses on inquiry and collaborative learning—posing questions that may incorporate different disciplines. Today’s learning environments need to accommodate multiple disciplines and collaborative group projects.


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The prep labs designed for Camden County College’s new Science building are "back of house," allowing for shorter set-up times between classes. Plan: HERA Lab Planners

Hands-on activities such as those found in upper-level biology often require a greater number of wet benches, examination areas, biosafety protection, and sensitive optical equipment. Environmental science studies can be enhanced by incorporating access to the outdoors and analytical equipment for environmental samples. Advanced chemistry labs require a greater number of fume hoods than introductory courses. The pedagogies and their corresponding activities should drive the design, versa.

Finally, extending the learning environment outside the classroom increases opportunities to reach more students. The institution can put "science on display" similar to a science museum, encouraging learning outside the lab via interactive displays and exhibits, prominent collections in public areas, and even views of active labs. This approach has several benefits: it creates casual learning in public spaces, attracts non-science majors, and fosters scientific dialogue. Encouraging non-structured learning can help increase dialogue among various science disciplines and interest among all students.

Research integration: Research in the sciences has always been a high priority for graduate work, but more post-secondary institutions are incorporating research activities for undergraduates. Faculty-to-faculty interdisciplinary research is at the forefront of trends in institutions with heavy emphasis on research; faculty-graduate student collaborations are common in institutions with advanced degree programs. What is now occurring is more faculty-guided and independent undergraduate student research, particularly among institutions preparing students for advanced work and students aspiring to graduate programs. Each form of research suggests the amount and type of spaces to be considered, including corresponding access issues. Several questions will need to be answered:

  • What type of oversight will students have by faculty?
  • Will access to sophisticated instruments or environments be offered?
  • How will access be restricted?

The type of research, the biohazard and chemical hazard levels, the type of equipment and the number of potential collaborators, will all have an effect on the lab design. A thorough investigation, including faculty and administration interviews, will help identify where the research is going and how it can be best accommodated in the facility.

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Emergency kits, eyewashes, and safety showers should be near the exit and highly visible through the use of wall and floor color. (Northern Kentucky University Natural Science Center). Photo: HERA Lab Planners

Operations: Every institution’s environmental health and safety (EHS) department should have input as to protocols, procedures, and restrictions. Some EHS departments are directly responsible for lab preparation, and include full-time technicians who set up each lab between classes. Other institutions may require instructors to do their own prep work, or supervise students in a controlled area. Each of these approaches suggests different arrangements of prep areas.

At CUNY Lehman College in New York, prep areas for the new Science Center are designed "front-of-house," between two labs, allowing faculty or part-time technicians to access prep labs from public corridors. Prep areas in Camden County College's new Science Building are designed "back-of-house": all labs are adjacent to a long centralized spine of shared prep areas. Full-time technicians can easily access each of the classrooms, allowing more staff to service more labs, reducing set up time between lab sections.

Safety, safety, and safety: Speaking of safety, much has been written about safe lab practices (DiBardnis, Baum, First, Gatwood, & Seth, 2001). These practices are especially important in an educational setting where students have not yet had rigorous training in protocols and procedures.

Safety issues in academic lab planning
Perhaps the main question to consider when planning for safety is how much access and how much oversight students should have when working with specialty equipment or in restricted areas. When a curriculum calls for increased risk due to hazardous chemicals or pathogens, as found at the University of Pittsburgh BSL-3 training facility, operations personnel must establish specialty protocols for faculty and students. These include security, access, and training on the proper use of equipment and specialty environments. Each institution will have its own policies and protocols established by the EHS officials and reviewed during early stages of planning.

There are a number of good practices when planning for safety, including visibility, zoning, and transparency. Labs should accommodate good visibility for both the student and the instructor, so that potentially hazardous activities can be monitored closely and effortlessly. Hazardous areas should be zoned so that they are segregated from high traffic. High traffic areas should be kept near the entry to the lab, away from fume hoods and biosafety cabinets, which could become unsafe with high occupancies and increased traffic.

Emergency kits, eyewashes, and safety showers should be near the exit and highly visible through the use of wall and floor color. Transparency, or ability to see directly into a space, lends another level of safety to teaching labs so that activities can easily be monitored. This can also provide an important side benefit of natural light and views, which adds a sustainability feature.

Awareness of each of the external influences—enrollment patterns, industry demand, and the various learning modalities—will help an institution understand and define the space problems. Addressing the institutional goals for utilization, effective learning activities, research, operations, and safety will help ensure effective space solutions that meet the needs of the curriculum.

These are only a few of the challenges institutions will face when beginning the process of translating the STEM curriculum into effective learning spaces. Indeed, topics such as the budget, construction phasing, disruption, and minimizing operational costs are all important to address. However, careful planning and an approach that addresses the institution’s unique goals will result in facilities that can accommodate change and remain relevant and appropriate for years to come.

Barbara Spitz, AIA, NCARB, is a principal in the Philadelphia office, and David Miller, LEED AP, is a programmer in the St. Louis office of Health, Education + Research Associates (HERA), a laboratory planning consulting firm (


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