Apr 24, 2017 Last Updated 12:59 PM, Apr 20, 2017

School labs: What does the future hold?

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Science never stands still, and nor should the classrooms it's taught in. But what does the future hold for the school science lab? Will benches and Bunsen burners be replaced by spaces that to our eyes seem more science fiction than science fact? Peter Smith, Director, Innova Design Solutions explains more.

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We believe the answer lies with the today’s students – the architects and designers of tomorrow. Putting the end user at the heart of consultation on any new build or refurbishment provides a clear picture of what sort of space will work for them. That’s why we asked 11 to 16 year olds to design their vision of what a school science lab might look like in 20 years’ time for our Lab of the Future competition. The ideas they came up with may surprise you.

Design led

Initially we’d expected to see a lot of ideas that were pure science fiction, so the high level of design literacy the students seemed to have was a real surprise. The entries we received were not only hugely creative but also showed a genuine interest in design.

Growing up with the internet means these students have had access to a wide variety of design styles and influences, and were much more visually driven and sophisticated than we’d anticipated. There was a clear understanding of practical, workable design and they had very definite ideas about the way they wanted the classroom to look and the materials they wanted to use.

The look and feel of a room can very much influence your attitude to it, and the students’ ideas highlighted how important it is to them that a classroom is stylish and has a real ‘wow’ factor. In a climate where standardised ‘one size fits all’ classrooms seem to be becoming the norm in education design, it’s important architects, designers and teachers alike are aware that for many students, a classroom that’s purely functional simply won’t cut it when it comes to inspiring learning.

Teacher focused

Given the opportunity to design the school science lab of the future, you could be forgiven for thinking that many students would choose to get rid of teachers altogether, however the classrooms our students came up with suggested quite the opposite. Many of the designs we saw were very teacher focused, and put staff at the heart of the learning space – in some cases literally, by placing teachers in a central teaching hub with a circular, tiered auditorium radiating out from it.

We noticed students had invested a lot of time in thinking up ideas to help make the teacher’s job easier. From high tech screens and control panels which enabled them to track pupils’ progress remotely and streaming lessons via tablets and holographic displays to creating layouts that improved circulation and shortened lines of communication, the students sought out solutions that would allow the teacher to spend more time with them and less time negotiating the geography of the classroom.

Their designs showed an awareness of how much existing classroom layouts can inhibit science teaching and prevent teachers from adopting the modern methods the curriculum demands. They also suggested that just like their teachers, they feel frustrated by this. Ultimately the designs recognised a need for greater flexibility in science classrooms and the students worked hard to create a space that adjusted to their needs and that of the teacher rather than the other way round.

Technology as standard

All the designs we saw included a strong technology element. Having grown up with PCs, mobiles and tablets, today’s secondary school students see technology as fundamental to their learning rather than an add on or bonus. For them the virtual learning environment is as important as the physical one, and the way their ideas integrated the two offers a lesson for anyone looking to create a classroom with real longevity.

Rather than creating classrooms where the technology was the stuff of science fiction, they viewed it as a practical means of solving the problems they encounter in the classroom. Whilst many designers would address difficulties in seeing and hearing by altering the classroom layout to reduce communication lines, our students employed technology, placing holographic displays and projections at pupils’ workspaces.

Technology was also seen as a means to aid modern teaching methods. To assist individual learning and help students to learn at their own pace, many designs incorporated holographic glasses so experiments could be conducted virtually. Immersive technologies and 3D projection systems were popular solutions to support group and project work.

Rethinking flexibility

The need to improve flexibility is a constant challenge for architects and designers working on education projects. Current thinking suggests the best way to address the problem and maximise space is to divide open plan spaces into distinct zones which can be reconfigured as the needs of students and teachers change. However, our student designers took a different approach to the lab of the future.

Instead of loose, reconfigurable tables and chairs which offered a completely flexible layout, many opted for multifunctional fixed furniture which could accommodate theory work, practicals and virtual experimentation within one unit. This suggests students may be more influenced by their current classrooms than we had expected, but also offered a refreshing perspective on this recurring problem.

Students are often accused of time wasting, but the storage solutions our young designers built into their classrooms very much reflected a desire to get on with the business of learning. Rather than placing equipment out of reach in separate prep rooms, they cleverly incorporated storage into the classroom itself.

From the outlandish (equipment conveyor systems and chemical vending machines) to the practical (storage walls and floors, cupboards and racks fitted beneath benches), students were keen to have the tools and equipment they needed to hand for practicals but with the ability for it to be stowed quickly and safely to save time and cut clutter.

The ideas we received for the Lab of the Future competition have provided a fascinating insight into how students view and engage with their learning environment.

These tech-loving, design savvy pupils seek classrooms that visually inspire as well as instruct, but also want spaces that are practical, flexible and facilitate their learning.

Designers, architects and educators beware: students’ expectations of a science laboratory are high, and will only continue to grow. Now’s the time for us to listen.

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