|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
spring 2012 | volume 18 | number 2
Room to Race
In the world of science, cutting-edge technology is often the driver. Brenda Weiser, associate professor in curriculum and instruction, is ecstatic about the latest technology upgrades in the new science laboratory in Arbor South; and while she's delighted with its snazzy, state-of-the-art whiteboard that lets her write on it from anywhere in the room, it's the little things about the new facility that excite her the most.
The biggest of those "little things" that make the new facility her dream lab is space. Weiser reports the approximate 40- by 46-square-foot combination laboratory and lecture room meets the Texas Education Agency and National Science Teachers Association's guidelines for recommended square footage per high school student. The new area, not counting the chemical and biology preparation and storage rooms, is nearly five times the size of the old lab.
"In part it's a safety concern," explains Weiser. "You want students to be able to work and not trip over each other." The laboratory provides an ideal setting to demonstrate engaging ways for future teachers to instruct students—from early childhood through high school—in science subjects like physics, chemistry and biology. The previous facility, officially dedicated in spring 1986, served the university for more than 25 years. A growing emphasis on science and technology education in elementary and secondary schools, coupled with the advent of student backpacks the size of mini-suitcases, eventually caused the original science space to become outdated and cramped.
Plans to renovate the old lab had been on and off the drawing board for more than eight years. The final decision to build an entirely new facility came once it became apparent that meeting the square footage guidelines required more space than was available in the original location.
Having the new facility is an important plus for students. The space mirrors the current labs at most modern elementary and secondary schools, and gives students the opportunity to receive hands-on experience in a similar setting.
"When you walk in you can see how spacious it is; how organized it is," says student Katherine Simieou. "Everything has its place. You don't have to sit on top of each other to do your experiments."
For student Joseph Sellers, the new laboratory is a better, safer environment.
"Safety is such a vital part of science teaching, and as a future science teacher I need to see practices modeled before me that exhibit the right way to do things," says Sellers.
The larger space also opens up a world of opportunities for new activities which the older space couldn't accommodate. That means Weiser and the other science instructors will be brainstorming new activities for future classes. In the new lab, 12 adjustable-height science tables comfortably accommodate a class of 24, and can easily be configured to slant when performing inclined plane experiments.
Lining the outer perimeter of the room along the back and side walls are six sinks with both hot and cold running water.
"It's the little things," says Weiser, her face beaming as she considers the improved efficiency of readily-available hot water.
Gas jets are also in place, and the abundance of counter space is a much-welcomed feature.
"We can set up labs and let them run for a week each," says Weiser.
Large windows above the sink and counter areas allow for bright, natural light to support plant growth. Plants provide excellent lessons, demonstrating everything from environmental impacts to insights about human physiology.
The spacious laboratory also has plenty of wide, open areas where students can put into practice fun ways to demonstrate the physics of force and motion.
Simieou's class recently built bottle rocket cars, providing an opportunity to test the limits of the lab space.
"We were able to race them through the classroom," says Simieou. "Everyone was on the floor; nobody was going out in the halls. We were able to do everything in the room."
Safety features are paramount in the new lab. Besides having adequate space, an in-room safety shower is available in case of a mishap. For proper and secure storage of chemicals, a separate chemical preparation room adjoins the lab. Its state-of-the-art fume hood—a ventilation device that limits potential exposure to hazardous or noxious fumes and vapors—provides a safe site for mixing and transporting chemicals.
A second adjoining room, the biology prep room, is equipped with science tables and shelving for storage. It provides a staging area for experiments related to physics, earth, space and life sciences.
Beyond the addition of space and increased safety, the lab provides valuable preparation for future science educators.
"As future science teachers, we need to see and have modeled the right storage methods, the right procedures and the right methods for doing things," explains Sellers.
The community will benefit from the new facility, too.
"We've already hosted one workshop with the Galveston Bay Foundation, bringing teachers here for a program on the Gulf of Mexico," says Weiser.
Texas Regional Collaboratives' ongoing professional development workshops will now be held in the new science laboratory. TRC is a statewide network of partnerships between institutions of higher education, school districts, business partners and the Texas Education Agency, and it draws science teachers from all across Houston and the Bay Area.
The new space will also be used by the Clear Creek Independent School District's middle school Gifted and Talented Alpha II program and the UHCL's Kids U summer science camps.
Age-old values like "good things come to those who wait," and "it's the little things that matter most," couldn't be truer for Weiser and her students. As the semester closes the door on the new classroom's premier semester, Weiser knows that next term and for many years to come, future science teachers will have a safe, efficient and spacious area to prepare for shaping students' scientific experiences.
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