Science expansion at Muscatine High School paves STEM curriculum pathways based on students’ goals, whether they plan to enroll in a two- or four-year institution, join a trade school, or enter the workforce directly
To walk through the science addition at Muscatine High School (Muscatine, Iowa) is to experience a community of learning. The light-filled corridors display bursts of Muskies purple, bright graphics, and most important, advanced labs. The upper-level corridor even leads to a glass wall that exhibits a green roof extending above the new events entry.
Muscatine Community School District leaders anticipate that the 33,000-square-foot expansion, designed by Legat Architects and built by Bush Construction, will pave the way for improved student science scores and productive careers ranging from science and biomedicine to technology and industrial manufacturing.
Learning is the expression of critical thinking where multiple disciplines are integrated to create a new understanding.Clint Christopher,
Superintendent, Muscatine Community School District
“Our current and future students are experiencing the benefits of having a high-quality
instructional environment built around educational best practices in science,” said Superintendent Clint Christopher. “Students need access to lecture areas, lab areas, interactive areas, and facilities that promote 21st Century Instructional Standards and requirements. The versatile new science area helps to connect the work of mathematics, engineering, technology, and science into a meaningful whole.”
Muscatine High School’s science space, built in 1974, was too small, too dark, and too old to meet the demands of a modern science curriculum. A shortage of lab and storage spaces impeded experiments and independent research. Limited natural light prevented classes from conducting photosynthesis experiments. A lack of outdoor learning areas limited lab activities and detracted from instructional time. Safety shortcomings restricted projects involving fire, chemicals, food, or anything requiring a separate space. Some teachers even had to access a separate room to turn gas on or off.
These deficiencies made it difficult for Muscatine High School science teachers to achieve Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are state-developed standards aimed at giving students a solid foundation in the sciences to prepare them “for college, careers, and citizenship.”
A Solution Inspired by Teachers and Students
Planning sessions brought together teacher and student groups to help create the design vision for the addition. Based on input, the Legat team created three conceptual options that it presented to the groups. This led to the final design option: a light-filled expansion that not only provides safe, spacious labs and technology upgrades that enhance MHS’s curriculum, but also offers much more common space.
The design of the two-story building features wide-open learning corridors and breakout space for student projects. One highlight is the learning stair that encourages student gathering. On the first floor, operable partitions between a STEM lab and the lobby open to create a larger breakout STEM space next to the stair. The STEM space, which can be divided into smaller spaces for startup projects, lays the groundwork for expansion of MHS’s Project Lead The Way (e.g., computer science, engineering, biomedical science) and robotics programs. The first floor also houses three physics labs and three general labs.
On the second floor, each side of a corridor that opens to below has two chemistry labs connected by a prep lab. This setup ensures that students no longer have to cart around glassware or chemicals—they just go into prep room. Additionally, on each side of the prep room, a “pass-through” fume hood gives teachers a full view of the spaces.
Additional second-floor spaces include a SPED (special education) lab, team collaboration area, and staff workroom. The project also includes facility-wide upgrades to HVAC, acoustical, and structural systems.
Christopher discussed how the district’s view of learning shaped the project. “Learning isn’t isolated. Learning isn’t rote memorization of concepts that stay only in the confines of a singular content area. Learning is the expression of critical thinking where multiple disciplines are integrated to create a new understanding. I’m extremely thankful to Legat for their efforts connected to this project.”
Flexibility: Settings for Multiple Scenarios
MHS’s 45-year-old labs had fixed furnishings that limited group work and took up valuable instruction time. The science expansion untethers students—furniture can be quickly rearranged to support many scenarios: experiments, testing, teamwork, lectures, and even independent research.
Such flexibility is especially evident in the STEM lab. “Everything in that room except some storage space can be moved around,” said Legat’s Jeff Sandberg, project manager. “If you want an independent space for research, you can block off an area. If you want a pre-engineering class to build and test robots, you can move everything to the side and create a wide-open area.”
A large corridor window displays to passing students the STEM lab activity: robot operations, stop motion animation, aerodynamics experiments, wind turbine assembly, and much more. The STEM hub at MHS will host not just daytime activities, but also after-school activities such as robotics matches and coding classes.
Accessible Outdoor Areas: More Experiments, Experiences, and Instructional Time
Before the addition, all MHS science classes suffered from a severe shortage of outdoor learning areas. Finding and getting to outside space for a lab exercise often became a time-consuming effort. For instance, one environmental biology activity required students to take outdoor measurements, then come back inside within 30 seconds. The biology department faced similar obstacles with photosynthesis activities.
The science expansion offers all classes easy access to outdoor areas. Outside zones directly off the labs host motion labs that explore, for example, how feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis. The second-floor balcony/green roof gives students hands-on experience with everything from thermodynamics studies and velocity vs. speed lessons to sustainability projects involving solar and wind energy.
Local Connections: A Foundation for Multiple Career Paths
The MHS addition will benefit students who move on to two- or four-year institutions, as well as those who pursue high-tech industrial and manufacturing careers. The many hands-on experiments that the expansion enables also appeal to students who want to work in the trades.
During programming, science staff toured Muscatine-based organizations including Grain Processing Corporation (GPC), Bayer U.S., and furnishing/building products manufacturer HNI Corporation. Some of these organizations’ modeling was incorporated into the design of the science expansion. As a result, the MHS expansion creates pathways that expose students to opportunities that prepare them for both the college classroom and the workplace, whether they want to become welders, lab technicians, engineers, or chemists. The addition also enables MHS to better connect with the programming at nearby Muscatine Community College.
SPED Lab: Science for Special Education
Before the expansion, special education teachers had trouble finding space for science lessons. When they did find something, it was typically a standard classroom with no gas or water.
The new SPED lab gives special education students the chance to work in a real lab setting. The lab, which holds up to 16 students, has all the equipment necessary to house classes in physics, chemistry, and biology. On the other side of a partition is an open collaborative space with movable furniture. Instructors in the adjacent chemistry lab can slide a whiteboard to create a connection to the SPED lab, which has the flexibility to host AP and elective courses.
A Community of Inquiry for All Grade Levels
Before the addition, MHS physics classes doing “drop experiments” (e.g., creating cases that prevent dropped cell phones from breaking) had to walk across the school or go outside to the stadium bleachers to get the height they needed. Now they can conduct the experiments from the upper floor of the science expansion’s atrium.
This is just one example of how the Muscatine High School science expansion will create a “community of inquiry” where experiments and collaboration rule the day . . . and where STEM pathways become visible to not just high schoolers, but also to middle and elementary students within the Muscatine district.
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