There is a great drive at the moment to get children into science, and yet teachers are perhaps not going as far as they could. For rather than just putting laboratories in classrooms, one US organisation has created a classroom that is, itself, the laboratory.
We are not talking about a test bed for psychological study but a laboratory where practical experiments can take place using the building itself. It is the brainchild of the SEED Collaborative, a US collective of eco experts seeking to put sustainability at the heart of the curriculum. It has designed what it calls a "modular, portable living-building classroom".
In practice, this means that the SEED Collaborative's portable classroom collects, stores and uses rainwater for sinks and the irrigation of a "living wall" of plants. It has a composting toilet, so waste is composted and used in non-food-producing gardens. And all the energy that the classroom needs comes from solar panels on the roof, sized to provide enough power for all the classroom's systems to function.
All systems are left exposed so that students can see how the building works and what it takes to make the systems function. For example, they can trace conduits from the light or radiant heating panel to their source at the electrical box. They can track energy consumption and production on simple monitors that provide up-to-the-minute readings of how the building is operating.
These are just a few of the elements that teachers can exploit in their lessons. To help them to do this, an operations and maintenance manual is provided for the classroom that includes lessons designed for various age groups.
"Our aim is to get more kids exposed to this type of sustainable hands-on educational environment," says Stacy Smedley, executive director of the SEED Collaborative.
She admits that the up-front costs of a living-building classroom are 20-30 per cent higher than a conventional temporary building, but says that the price is on a par with conventional permanent buildings. Long-term, though, "no utility costs and lowered maintenance" mean that the classroom is "substantially lower in price when looking at a life-cycle cost" than temporary and conventional permanent buildings.
The design is currently only a prototype but it has attracted enquiries from schools around the world. With plans to retrofit existing buildings as well, it seems that science may soon become part of every classroom, whatever the lesson.
For more information, visit www.theseedcollaborative.org.