The science labs at Walter Payton College Prep, a Near North magnet school, are among the best in the district; on par, the staff says, with those at the state’s premier science school, the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora.

Each of the eight Payton labs has 28 laptop computers, a costly fume hood to accommodate chemistry experiments and workstations with hookups for gas, water, electricity and the Internet. The school also has a greenhouse and planetarium, extras that other schools will likely never see.

First-rate lab facilities like Payton’s can engage students with more sophisticated hands-on experiments and provide them with access to a wide range of resources, experts say. Well-stocked labs can also help a school to attract the best science teachers.

“Working conditions are important,” says Jonathon Shemwell, a National Board-certified teacher, who taught at Steinmetz and Lincoln Park but grew tired of “working with limited resources.”

Broken equipment and shabby labs make science teaching tough, he notes. Good teachers can overcome limitations, he explains, but the challenges of working with meager resources are grating.

On the other hand, top-notch facilities offer teachers benefits beyond the ability to conduct sophisticated science lessons. At Payton, for instance, Internet access allows him to use data to improve instruction.

During a recent physics experiment, Shemwell’s students completed a five-week inquiry into the effects of different variables on the motion of pendulums attached to 3-foot stands. Students plugged their information into laptop spreadsheets, then answered a Web-based quiz. The quiz results, instantly tallied by an online service, helped Shemwell quickly identify concepts that still eluded the class.

Teachers shop around for the best environment, Shemwell points out, making retention of good science teachers difficult. “But a teacher will get attached to the kids,” he notes.

Senn Assistant Principal Badel Khano, who has worked in the district’s human resources department, knows science teachers shop around. Senn, where labs are outdated and in need of repairs, will have a tougher time than Payton recruiting the additional biology teacher it needs to hire this year, he says.

Says Khano, “It’s not only keeping good science teachers, it’s finding them.”

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to

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