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Teacher Resources

What are the space requirements for a safe science laboratory?

What is the maximum number of students you should have in your science laboratory? How much lab space should be available for each science student?

These are two of the most frequently asked questions we receive each year. The frequency of these questions points out the safety consciousness of today's science teacher. This article is intended to provide you with guidelines on how to help solve the problem of overcrowding in the science laboratory. We hope you and your administration will evaluate and adopt these guidelines in an effort to provide a safer working and improved learning environment for teachers and students.

Many school districts are experiencing budget problems. Any and all solutions to reduce school spending are being considered. One of the many solutions school administrators are considering to help "ease" budget problems is to increase the number of students in each class. Increasing class size not only delays the need to hire additional teaching staff, but also postpones the need to provide additional classroom space. For the science laboratory this solution creates major problems.

Health and Safety Concerns

Science teachers sense that overcrowded conditions in their science laboratories contribute to lab accidents. Their safety sense has not failed them! Overcrowding in the science laboratory is a major contributing factor to the safety problems school science departments face today.

In 1988, a report published in the Florida Science Teachers Magazine, Spring Edition, 1988, by Phillip Horton entitled "Class Size and Lab Safety in Florida" documented that over 55% of the science classes had enrollments teachers considered to be "potentially unsafe" for lab work. The average class size in these "unsafe" classrooms was 31 students. Of the 45% of the science classrooms teachers considered to be "safe", the average class size was 23 students. One high school teacher surveyed had two classes where the number of students was within the designed enrollment capacity, and three classes where enrollments exceeded the room capacity. He said "Contrasting the number of accidents between the first two periods and the last three ... class size does make a significant difference in traffic flow, individual monitoring, and understanding of the students!" The facts are clear, increasing the number of students in a science laboratory increases the likelihood of accidents. A high pupil/teacher ratio constitutes a threat to laboratory safety.

While we are concerned about the safety of the students, let's not forget that overcrowded conditions in the science laboratory also present an unsafe working environment for the science teacher as an employee of the school district. Most science laboratories are designed to accommodate 24 students, an accepted professional standard. When class sizes are larger than 24 students, it becomes very difficult for the science teacher to safely handle, transport and use laboratory chemicals and equipment. Increased class size puts "at risk" the health and safety of the science teacher.

Academic Concerns

Though student safety in the science laboratory is a major reason for limiting class size, another consideration is the ability to provide quality laboratory instruction. Many laboratory experiences require a high degree of student-teacher interaction. The fewer students there are in a laboratory, the greater the opportunity for students to ask questions and for teachers to clarify procedures and encourage the development of reasoning skills.

The amount of personal instruction provided each student must be considered. As one teacher who was teaching in an overcrowded science laboratory put it, "There is simply not enough teacher to go around and give sufficient time to each student."

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