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Aging science labs are targeted

Schools cite issue as major reason to rebuild

Thousands of Bay State high school students conduct experiments in decades-old science labs, some without computers or functioning gas lines, at a time when science has leapt forward to embrace robotics, forensics, and nanotechnology.

At least two-thirds of the 99 public high schools vying for state construction money this year cited outdated science labs among the reasons for building a new school or to renovate and expand an existing building. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an accreditation group, has noted aging science labs and other deficiencies in placing six Massachusetts schools on probation, a rare action that can lead to a loss of accreditation.

The condition of the labs - many of them built before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969 - is raising questions about the schools' ability to prepare students to pass the state's new high school science exam, a soon-to-be graduation require ment, and to recruit students into careers for the sciences. Education officials will release the first-ever batch of high school science scores tomorrow.

"If you haven't had a great experience studying science in high school, then you are going to avoid it in college," said Timothy P. Cahill, state treasurer, who is overseeing the state's new $2.5 billion school construction program.

"If we can make science more exciting and show them some of the latest technology, we will have a better chance of helping to direct students to become the next generation of scientists or at least study science in college," Cahill said in an interview last week.

At Norwood High School, where the science wing opened in 1962, students make do with a chalkboard, an overhead projector, and often-clogged sinks at chemistry benches. For more sophisticated biology experiments, students board a 40-foot van equipped with a science lab that the Boston University School of Medicine sends to the school.

At Methuen High School, teachers for nearly 40 biology and chemistry classes compete weekly for a slot in one of two labs, which date to the building's opening in 1975. The two labs are technically in one room, divided by a partition. Each side can hold up to 25 students.

"It's just tough," said Joseph Harb, Methuen's science curriculum coordinator for grades 7 through 12. "Most teachers are doing the same unit at the same time, so to get in there is something of a numbers crunch."

Many schools want to replace outdated ventilation systems, gas lines, water and sewer pipes, emergency showers, eye washers, and lab counters, and add more electrical outlets for computers and microscopes and better storage facilities for chemicals.

Administrators and teachers, in applications filed with the state for school construction money, also plead for larger science labs and more of them. Some of the shortage is because of a bulge in high school student enrollment, but much of it reflects a change in the way science is taught. Years ago, teachers often would take students to the science laboratory once or twice a week to conduct experiments and deliver lectures in the classroom.

But state science standards adopted in the 1990s encourage students to do experiments every day. While new schools combine lecture space and laboratory benches in one classroom, older schools often have just a handful of labs, creating massive scheduling conflicts.

The number of schools requiring replacement or renovation could run deep. Although the state doesn't track the ages of science labs, a survey of school building conditions last year by the state School Building Authority revealed that nearly half of the 330 or so public high schools either were built or had their last extensive renovation more than 25 years ago, leading state policy makers to conclude the labs in those schools are at least that old.

The Bay State's outdated science labs echo a national problem, said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

He pointed to a digital divide: students who use iPods, cellphones, and other high-tech devices for their personal use, but sit in school science labs that rely on old-fashioned stop watches and ball drops.

"American science labs are in pretty dire shape," he said. "Students see high school science as irrelevant. But science labs should be one of the best places to play with that new technology, show the science behind it, and how that plays out in their lives."

The aging science labs are a touchy issue with high schools. As officials advocate for replacement, they are quick to defend the teaching that takes place in these labs. Ray Pavlik, science department chairman at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, did just that after describing the woes of trying to schedule two-hour weekly sessions for 14 chemistry classes in two labs that date to 1961.

"These kids are smart and the teaching staff is exceptional," said Pavlik, later adding, "Are they disadvantaged more than other newer high schools? I don't know."

But Pamela Gray-Bennett, director of the commission on public secondary school for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, says new science labs make a difference.

"Teachers don't want to be blamed for inadequate instruction, but it's not their fault," she said. "If you don't have labs, you have to change the way you teach. What you have in your classroom, especially in science, has an enormous impact on what you do."

At the two-year-old Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, Mark Stephansky, science department head, said he is amazed how much easier it is to teach in the new labs. He delivers lectures in front of a so-called smart board, which is a large computer-like screen where he can show PowerPoint presentations or grab information at any time from the Internet. He controls the board from a computer at his desk, but also can change images on the screen by touching the board with his finger tips.

His students take notes from 12 tables at the center of the room. When it's time for an experiment, they go to one of six lab benches that line two walls of the classroom, each equipped with a computer, sink, and gas valves.

"It's light years beyond what we had before," he said. "It doesn't entirely cure student apathy. It's still there, but this helps."

A 10,000-square-foot science wing - including four labs, two teacher preparation/storage rooms, and equipment - can cost $3.4 million, according to a high school science facility planning guide by the National Science Teachers Association. Newer labs often include snazzy forensic collecting and analysis devices, enabling students to do DNA fingerprinting. It's a reflection of how biology has moved toward the booming arena of life sciences and away from botany.

Despite the large number of requests, Cahill says Massachusetts shouldn't get carried away with high-tech gizmos, allowing the rehab of science labs to eat away at limited construction dollars.

This winter, the School Building Authority will convene a round-table of science educators, school administrators, high-tech business leaders, and architects to determine what gadgets high school science labs should have for teaching and what are the best designs for classrooms.

The only design standards Massachusetts has for science labs - aside from safety codes for gas lines, water pipes, and the like - is for labs to be a minimum of 1,200 square feet, according to the School Building Authority.

"We want to be fiscally prudent," Cahill said.

Maynard High School is hoping its 45-year-old science labs, which are contributing to its probationary accreditation status, will help persuade the state to award it construction aid. Although the school has addressed some equipment deficiencies with new sinks and lab tables, it can do little to fix the outdated design of its labs and out-of-code gas lines without a major renovation.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed while we wait for word from the state on construction money [and] then we will decide what our options are," said William Kohlman, School Committee chairman, noting there are so many other problems with the building it may require replacement.

Lauren Burris, a Whitman-Hanson senior, may have found a career path because of the new labs at her school.

She said she would never have imagined a future for herself in the sciences when she was a freshman in the rundown labs in the old building.

"I know I definitely want to be an engineer now because of these labs," said Burris, as she stopped by her science teacher's high-tech classroom Friday afternoon with a question. "It's more like real life. In the old labs, I felt like I was in ancient history."

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