Not Your Typical Science Lab Makeover

Not Your Typical Science Lab Makeover

The Living Room Concept at Deer Path Middle School

Lake Forest School District works with MiEN to rewrite the playbook on how to build out a modern, collaborative middle school science lab.

It’s been nearly three years since a group of administrators and directors at Deer Path Middle School first sat down and planned out their new science lab, but the wait was well worth it. Wanting to create a breakout facility that would include four science labs, but that didn’t feel like your typical lab environment, they nicknamed their project “The Living Room.”

That name not only stuck, but it also became a focal point for a learning environment that truly feels like a living space. “We wanted to set the tone for the project,” said Renee Fitzsimmons, Director of Innovation at Lake Forest School District. “Our science labs were over 20 years old, so they were dated.”

Wanting to stay within the physical footprint of those existing labs, the district worked on both on the side of the lab designed for grades 5-6, and for the grades 7-8 portion. The latter got the most attention due to the flexibility of its existing space. “That’s where the true innovation and transformation took place,” Fitzsimmons explained.

Rewriting the Rules

With the goal of developing future-ready learners, the school solicited student input on what they wanted in a new science lab. It also tapped into the power of the “3Cs”—collaboration, creativity, and communication—when planning out the new space.

Where the school’s previous lab was structured as a place where students worked individually, doing experiments and collecting their data, for example, the new facility would stoke more collaboration among those youngsters.

“This is what a lot of future-ready think tanks are doing now, so we came at it with that lens,” Fitzsimmons said. “We want our students to be authentic learners who can participate in a collaborative learning community in the future.”

A Little Bit of Feng Shui

To support this mission, the Deer Path Middle School team installed moveable walls, made good use of natural light, and worked with MiEN to come up with an interior design that fit with its core mission. One of the first things to go were the uncomfortable, metal chairs found in most science labs.

“We wanted students to be able to sit and collaborate comfortably,” said Fitzsimmons, who recalled other important must-haves including a pleasant ambience, an atmosphere that stokes creativity, and “a little bit of Feng Shui” to tie the whole concept together.

“When you go somewhere like Starbucks or another cool type of coffee house, that’s where a lot of people do their best work,” said Fitzsimmons. “It’s where they feel inspired, and we wanted to emulate that atmosphere in The Living Room.”

With MiEN as its design partner, Deer Path Middle School was able to rewrite the standards of science lab construction and replace them with new, innovative concepts that support modern learning and collaboration. Some of those concepts include high-top tables that students can gather around; cozy chairs that move and rock; and comfortable couches.

Amazing Collaborative Spaces

A 1:1 school where students have either iPads or Chromebooks, Deer Path Middle School also included outlets for device charging and writing spaces at every station throughout the labs. To other schools that are replacing or rehabbing science labs, Fitzsimmons suggested checking out the think tank spaces at companies like Google and Apple. “They have some pretty amazing collaborative spaces,” she said.

And while COVID-19 may have interrupted the official “ribbon cutting” for Deer Park Middle School’s new labs in 2020, Fitzsimmons is looking forward to the time when that can safely take place in person. Students in the school’s hybrid learning program are already using the space with safe social distancing and masks required, but the facility’s usage numbers are sure to increase once everyone is back on campus. “As soon as we’re in the clear with COVID,” she added, “we’ll be back and using the space as it was intended.”

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