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Infinite Capacity Community Partnership Series: A Risk Assessment for Safety in STEM/STEAM Spaces

This work was written by Dr. Krista Stith and Dr. Rachel Geesa; printed through the Indiana Association for School Principals in March 2022





With a large push for greater integration of technology and engineering in collaborative STEM/STEAM spaces (e.g., classrooms, makerspaces, fab labs), educational leaders should be aware of the practices for developing and maintaining a safe space. This month, we are exploring a health and safety framework that should be considered in integrative STEM/STEAM education experiences.


Conducting a risk assessment for safety within the space is a first step. Love and Roy (2018) provide six areas to consider for safe spaces: tools and equipment, furniture, engineering controls, supervision, storage, and occupancy load. We will highlight these areas in some detail and then provide additional resources at the end.


  1. Tools and Equipment- Grubbs and Stith (2021) describe functions of tools and instruments in hands-on STEM learning experiences. Scanning through the list, we can see many examples of items in a collaborative STEM space that may cause student injury and require caution.


Figure 1. Tool Functions. Figure from “Functions of Tools and Instruments in Integrative STEM” within “Chapter 4: Infrastructure and Programming” by M. E. Grubbs, and K. M. Stith, 2021, in R. L. Geesa, M. A. Rose, and K. M. Stith (Eds.), Leadership in integrative STEM education: Collaborative strategies for facilitating an experiential and student-centered culture (pp. 71-89). Rowman & Littlefield.


Tools and equipment in these collaborative STEM spaces should be carefully handled by teachers and students alike. While some hazards are rather straightforward (i.e., heat hazards from touching the hot end of a soldering iron), other hazards may need to be more thoroughly researched (i.e., fire hazards if the soldering iron is in close contact with chemicals).


  • Furniture- When students are excited to work on projects, the environment can be more chaotic. Therefore, furniture should be appropriate for the use of the space and well-maintained. Wobbly tables and loose wall hangings should be rectified immediately. Ensure guards are in place for sharp edges and objects.



  • Engineering Controls- Love and Roy (2018) address the importance of engineering controls. If a hazard does materialize, then a student or educator should be able to gain access to a system to control the hazard within ten seconds. Engineering controls include fire extinguishers, eye wash stations, shower stations, and a minimum of one emergency power switch (more power switches if the room is over 1,000 square feet). Ventilation fits into this category, as 3D printer particles, sawdust, soldering fumes, laser engraver dust, and direct exhaust can be detrimental toward student and educator health. If ventilation is not currently in place, please refrain from using the equipment until ventilation is set up. Personal protection equipment like safety goggles, gloves, and lab coats should also be provided.



  • Supervision and Security- Teachers who supervise the collaborative STEM space should receive the appropriate training in how to safely use the tools, equipment, furniture, and engineering controls. These individuals are critical toward protecting students and untrained teachers. All personnel and students should sign a safety acknowledgement form and receive training prior to tool and equipment access. Security measures should also be put into place to ensure tools and equipment remain in the space (e.g., cameras, door locks, sign-out forms).


  • Storage- Collaborative STEM spaces may require the use of hazardous chemicals like paints, solvents, epoxies, and acids. The chemicals should be locked when not in use and kept in a separate storage room with non-recirculating ventilation. Student projects, if stored on shelves, should be securely stored and in code compliance with specific fire protection systems (e.g., distance from the ceiling and sprinklers).



  • Occupancy Load- Love and Roy (2018) encourage educators to research occupancy load for a collaborative STEM space- particularly if the STEM space has been converted from an old classroom. The square footage per occupant, as mandated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) differs between a classroom space and a lab space. A fire marshal may need to determine if the occupancy load should be recalculated in a collaborative STEM space.


Once the full risk assessment for safety is complete, a space-specific health and safety plan should be developed. There are a number of resources available with plan templates and guidelines for collaborative STEM space safety, which include:



Conclusion

Safety should be a primary concern in schools and districts that maintain a collaborative STEM space. We hope that these initial recommendations and resources will open dialogue to ensure that educator and student safety and health hazards are minimized.





Infinite Capacity is dedicated to inclusively fostering personal and professional growth for educators, leaders, and community partners through innovative educational practices. Consulting services are available for school and district-level support. Please e-mail us at contact@infinitecapacity.com for more information. Our book, Leadership in Integrative STEM: Strategies for Facilitating an Experiential and Student-Centered Culture, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Rowman & Littlefield.



References

Love, T. S., & Roy, K. R. (2018). Converting classrooms to makerspaces or STEM labs: Design and safety considerations. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 78(1), 34.

Grubbs, M. E. & Stith, K. M. (2021). Infrastructure and Programming. In R. L. Geesa, M. A. Rose, & K. M. Stith (Eds.), Leadership in integrative STEM education: Collaborative strategies for facilitating an experiential and student-centered culture (pp. 71-89). Rowman & Littlefield.




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