“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is most important.” —Bill Gates

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Designing a Science Lab


Back in March, the TI team (Doug and I) was approached by the principal to see if we could help with the design of a brand new science space. At that time, we were under the impression that there would be a brand new STEM lab for Elementary, apart from the existing science lab. With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, this made perfect sense. However, throughout the process we learned that it was not a new space, but rather the relocation and redesign of the current science lab. We also learned that our budget was going to be smaller than what we had thought.


To get started, we called a meeting with the science reps, the school's projects team, the admin team, and of course, the science lab teacher, Ms. Georgina. This was the first of several meetings. We decided we'd follow the ASFM design process, created in partnership with design expert David Jakes.

Provocation: How might we design 
a learning experience that allows students to be scientists?

Part 1: Identify learning verbs

The first step was to dissect the NGSS standards to identify the verbs. Teachers were grouped by tables and handed the standards according to grade level. Teachers wrote each word on a post-it note. Afterwards, the verbs were grouped and 5-7 learning verbs emerged per table. Those key verbs were shared and then the whole design team decided on which 7 learning verbs to work on.

Learning verbs:
  • Observe
  • Analyze
  • Design
  • Test
  • Identify a problem
  • Predict
  • Plan

Part 2: Develop learning statements and Spatial concepts. 

The next step was to transform the learning verbs into learning statements. That is, what experience or behaviors do we want to see in students, and what kind of space will support this statement. This is what the design team developed:

When students OBSERVE:
Observe relationship between different kinds of living things
Open space that allows movement
Observe the environment around you
Includes outdoor/indoor areas
Observe how things work
Offers/provides a variety of resources, tools, choices
Observe results of experiments and redesign the experiment
Flexibility in options for recording/observing data (both digital and analog)
Observe how things react
Safe environment for observation
Observe data gathered/given cause/effect

When ANALYZING, students:
Look closely at evidence
Space to create and collect different types of evidence
Compare findings
Space that is safe when using tools to analyze
Ask questions
Space to exhibit findings/learnings and discuss/reflect
Determine if a solution works
Flexible spaces - lights, inside/outside, flooring
Use appropriate tools
Space for exploring/experimenting, testing/changing

Space that is accessible for everyone (meets needs)

Space with access to different tools and a place to use them
What learning looks like considering DESIGN:
Designing looks like students designing and creating
Big space to draw/sketch a plan
Designing looks like collaboration and communication
Available technology to redesign and research
Designing with access to a variety of tools
Organized area to know where to find available tools
Designing looks like students making and adapting plans

Designing looks like students being flexible

The experience to TEST looks like:
Learning looks like the application of a hypothesis
Space allows for experiments to take place
Learning  looks like students examining variables
Space that has access to multiple materials
Learning  looks like multiple attempts at data collection
Space to demonstrate data collection, processes and experimentation
Learning  looks like scientists recording data
Space protected for data recording materials
Learning  looks like adjusting materials to examine the variables
Space for finding ideas and outcomes
Learning should look enjoyable and fun
Space that’s open to visualize learners and learning from other groups
When IDENTIFYING A PROBLEM, learning looks like:
Asking questions
Space where all ideas and questions are valid and acknowledged
Looking for things that work
Space where “non-solutions” lead us to a solvable problem
Space where time and materials are available
Finding similarities/differences


Focusing/zooming in



To PREDICT, learning looks like:
Students having fun as a team
Students wearing lab coats, experts, professional
People collaborating with different ideas
Table groups with notebooks
Students on stools with notebooks and pencils writing down observations
Testing water or oil, cups
Testing hypothesis
Big mess on table
People making mistakes and persevering
Table, liquids, stools, liquid, cups
Students perform experiments
Sinks, clipboards, tall tables, storage with doors, storage for lab coats
People observing

What learning looks like considering to PLAN:
Planning experiments
Space allows for experiments to take place
Planning how to make something, mixing substances

Part 3: Consolidation of discovery data into drivers and constraints.

At this time, we did not meet with the design team again. The TI team took all the data that was collected and determined the drivers and constraints.


  • Flexibility
  • Choice
  • Space


  • Budget
  • Room dimensions
  • Storage space

Part 4: Prototyping

We planned a third meeting with a smaller group of teachers. At this time, we provided teachers with the layout and the dimensions of the space. Basically it was just a rectangle that measured 10.6 m x 6.2 m. Teachers had the opportunity to provide feedback for the prototype of the lab. They also made a list of the materials and equipment they thought would be necessary to support teaching the Science standards.

With the help of Ms. Ime, one the teachers in the design team who has a background in architecture, we went about creating prototypes. We used the online application RoomStyler to have a 3D visual of what the space might look like. After many iterations we collected several layouts. It was time to take it back to the team to get more feedback. Actually, we posted the prototypes on the wall and asked the whole staff to stop by and look at the renderings. They could write down any comments, suggestions, or provide feedback.

Based on this feedback and keeping the drivers in mind, we developed this final prototype:

For the last few details we met with the projects team to talk about providers and constructors. Finally, the school year ended with all plans in place. Summer vacations meant waiting time for us. I was anxious to return to school and be able to see the final results. Take a look, below is the finished room:

This room transformed from being a classroom (Before)...         into a science lab (After).


Looking at the new science lab, we can see how the drivers are present in the finished space.
  • Flexibility: All furniture is mobile and agile. Carpet squares allow for flexible seating. Projector is not mounted, allowing for various display options.
  • Choice: Students have choice over where to work and where to sit. (Stools are still pending to be delivered). White walls are writable.
  • Space: Furniture can be moved and stacked to allow for changes in space arrangement. The back door leads to a terrace that extends the lab outdoors.


In the end what seemed like a daunting task resulted in a rewarding experience. I personally appreciate the invitation to become involved in this learning opportunity. We were faced with various obstacles along the way, but I feel the new science lab met our expectations. This lab has become a highly visited space, bustling with kids that are eager to be scientists!


This blog post was also published in ASFMLearns.