Monday, December 22, 2008

Using Science Labs to Teach Science

If you walk into a typical physics or physical science classroom that's about to have students do a simple pendulum experiment, you're likely to see the formula for the period of a pendulum on the board. What you're unlikely to see is any discussion of experimental error or of how to make scientific observations.

Because it's so crucial to learning science, I'm going to discuss how to teach science using science labs. I'll use the example of a simple pendulum experiment because it's well understood. (By the way, those science teachers who make the extra effort to do experiments correctly deserve our praise and support.)

In a typical class, after explaining exactly what a simple pendulum is, teachers will show the formula for the period of a pendulum. They may have to explain about period and frequency. They will then point out the the formula for the period of a pendulum does not include the mass of the pendulum bob and that the period increases as the square root of the length. The effect of amplitude may not even be mentioned.

The experiment directions have been carefully written so that students make no mistakes. They start the pendulum moving with small swings and time ten swings. The length, mass, and period are recorded in the student notebooks. They then take measurements using other lengths and masses.

For many students, this experience is quite unsatisfactory. They've been asked to obtain a specific result. If they do not obtain the desired result, their grades suffer. Of course, many students appreciate the opportunity to get out of lecture and do something with their hands. Some even enjoy the detailed task of counting and recording. Neither of these rationales has anything to do with learning science. An excellent opportunity to learn science has been wasted.

Now, imagine another scenario that does play out in some of our science classes but in too few. The teacher begins by explaining some vocabulary such as period and frequency and eliciting some answers from the students. Next comes a discussion of what a pendulum is and some history about Galileo watching a chandelier. The teacher guides the discussion into how Galileo timed the period of the swinging chandelier. They didn't have clocks then so he must have used his pulse. What was his precision?

None of this discussion reveals the dependence of the period on pendulum length or mass or even on swing amplitude. Next, the teacher presents the class with the experiments they will do. What are the independent variables? Of course, there's the parameters of length and mass. What about amplitude? The dependent variable will be the period.

How will students measure pendulum length? What is the position at the top from which they will measure? What is the bottom position? Why choose these positions? Student ideas should be heard on all of the significant experimental details.

How will students measure the dependent variable? For the simplest case, students will time a number of swings. The class can discuss how many swings. What are the pros and cons of more or fewer swings? Should you use the lowest point or highest as the trigger? Different students may choose different strategies and discuss the outcome after the lab is over.

For students who also have the Smart Science® Pendulum Investigation lab unit, they can analyze data collected at intervals of 0.10 seconds. With many more points, they'll have greater precision. To get that precision, they must find a way to extract the period from the pendulum bob positions. That could be quite a challenge if they wish to use all of the points to maximize precision.

An advantage of the virtual lab will be in seeing the shape of the curve produced when position is plotted against time. As students take each data point, the graph develops and students see a sine wave appear. Notice that the sine wave comes from the data rather than vice versa as in simulations. Simulations are backwards and should not ever be the object of student scientific investigations.

Teachers can lead discussions about the implications of this wave shape for when the pendulum is moving fastest and when its moving slowest. The relationship with kinetic energy can readily follow. For more advanced classes, the nature of acceleration during the swings can be discussed and can lead to analysis of the changes in force because force is directly related to acceleration.

Students collect their data as they have planned, carefully entering the numbers into their laboratory notebooks for later analysis.

Once the students have their data and have analyzed it to come to specific conclusions, it's time for the class to compare and discuss the results. The teacher acts as moderator while calling on different students to present their data and conclusions. Teachers should guide students carefully to accepted conclusions while emphasizing the nature of scientific investigations. Empirical work is subject to errors and ambiguity. What possible variables were not controlled or measured? How might they have influenced the conclusions?

At the end, the students will remember the subject matter much better for having discovered it this way instead of simply being told the "facts." However, much more importantly, they will gain a better understanding of the nature of science, of how science works, and of what scientists actually do. As a result, we can hope that more of them will choose science or some related area as a career. We can hope that as future citizens, they'll better be able to make the decisions that we expect our informed citizenry to make.

We're facing an uncertain future. We cannot know what tomorrow will bring. We do know that having a good understanding of science will add another tool to everyone's mental tool kit to help them when the unexpected does happen. In the meantime, having Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" will help them every day to live better and happier lives.

© 2008 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Education Innovation on a Small Scale

I recall writing multiple-choice tests as professor and penalizing students for wrong guesses. If they didn't know the answer or couldn't narrow down the choices, they should just leave the answer blank. Students didn't like it.

Richard Hart of Nine-Patch Multiple-Choice, Inc. has turned the idea around. You get no points for a wrong answer, and you get points for not guessing — just not as many points as you'd get for the correct answer.

Here's his description of the process from his web site.
  1. Read the question and see if you can use it to report what you know or can do.
  2. If yes, then compare the answer you have in mind with the printed answers.
  3. If you find a match, you are probably right. Mark it.
  4. If there is no match, you may want to omit, to avoid making a wrong mark.
  5. You get one point for a right mark and one point for not making a wrong mark.”
In case, it's not obvious, the students all begin with a 50% before they've answered a single question. Fifty percent is still an F in most classes, but it's a lot better than beginning with 0%. (By the way, he provides software to make it all much easier for the incredibly low price of $29.95 for an unlimited single-user license.)

At this point, you may think that all that's happened is a shift of grading emphasis. Look again. The idea is that students must report their self-confidence by marking only what they know and admitting what they don't know by leaving those answers blank.

You could even expand that concept in the multiple-choice domain by allowing students to mark more than one answer. Suppose a student has eliminated two of the four answers and still can't decide. If the student marks both answers, then that student in communicating more information to the instructor. If one of those answers is correct, then the student gets some credit.

Imagine a multiple-choice exam where all questions have all answers marked before the students begins to answer the questions. (This is not Richard Hart's approach and only a hypothetical extension.) The students' task is elimination of incorrect answers. Every incorrect answer indicated adds to the student score. Erroneous marks result in zero points. A 25-question quiz with four choices per question would have a maximum of 75 points. Making the entire quiz blank would give a zero because every right answer would have been marked as wrong. Leaving the quiz with all answers marked would give the student 25 points or 33.3% of the maximum possible score because all correct answers are marked correct.

Now, imagine a multiple-choice test where questions may (or may not) have more than one correct choice. Suppose that every question on a 25-question quiz has all four answers correct. Then, the students begin unknowingly with a score of 100. Every answer that they mark as being incorrect reduces that number. If, on average, the number of correct answer per question is two, then the students begin (again unknowingly) with a score of 50. Taking the marks off of all incorrect answers results in a maximum score of 100. In this scheme, every choice of every question counts.

Ideas like those of Richard Hart and the extensions that I've suggested may seem very small in the overall scheme of building better education for our students. Everything is important in learning. Details count. Every positive innovation is a step forward. A version of this sort of multiple-choice scoring is the basis of a company with a patent on its "Confidence-Based Learning." Their market is corporate training and seems to be paying well if their website is any indication.

Even small ideas can have big outcomes.

© 2008 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fixing Science Education

Why is the United States falling behind in science education?

Class Size
Reading newspapers will provide a number of potential answers. For example, many decry the large class sizes. Prof. E. H. Hall of Harvard University wrote at the end of the 19th century that science labs must have no more than twelve students to succeed in teaching science. One teacher, no matter how skilled, could not provide inquiry-based learning to more than twelve students at a time.

Today's science teachers tell us that they have problems with more than 16 students in a science lab. Studies of accidents in science labs suggests that more than 24 students causes the accident rate to rise precipitously. Inadequate space in science labs also increases accident rates.

Unless you abandon science labs in science courses, you must have small lab sections - or an entirely different approach.

Teacher Training
Few science teachers these days understand science despite their education school training and lots of professional development. Even sending science teachers to spend summers with research scientists doen't necessarily solve this problem. Often, the teacher becomes a lab technician rather than a real research assistant.

The teacher training being practiced today misses the important point of science, is costly, and is time-consuming. Moreover, high turnover of teachers means that constant training is required to ensure that most science teachers have been trained. Finally, training rarely instills into teachers a true understanding of the nature of science.

Professional development is necessary to keep us from falling further into decay but is not the solution by itself.

Little Depth
Too many science classes spend very little time of each of many topics. This fact comes from overly ambitious standards, usually imposed by states. So many topics are specified that less than a day can be spent on each one. This sort of curriculum favors rapid memorizers and completely ignores aspects of science that are really important: the nature of science, scientific reasoning, data analysis skills, and understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

Students spend too much time in their science classes listening to teachers talk or watching them demonstrate. Conceivably, they could spend all of their time just preparing for, doing, and discussing excellent labs and have a much superior learning experience. Such a curriculum would necessarily limit the number of topics. Of course, the labs would have to be well-designed and sequenced. Preparation would have to include some purpose and connection to students' own lives.

Curricula have been designed and redesigned without notable success in widespread results. Something is missing.

Unprepared Students
Most students seem to arrive in their science classes with inadequate reading and mathematics skills. Great efforts have been put into improving these skills so that students can do better in their science and history classes as well as in their post-graduate lives.

The problem remains. In education, you must take your students as they are. Science courses must find ways to teach science while simultaneously enhancing reading, writing, and math skills. Science, like history, has much to offer other than simply skills. It has, literally, the world to offer. Well-designed science classes with great teachers will get students excited about learning science. Then, they'll have the motivation to improve their other skills so that they can understand the world around them.

Real Innovation Required
The current ideas are the same old ideas in new packages. Despite tens of billions of dollars and decades spent on them, the results are pretty much the same, and things are getting worse.

The usual ideas involve more teacher training, funding smaller science classes, redesigning curricula, and applying more effort in language arts and mathematics classes. Yet the science learning problem remains endemic in our nation's classrooms.

Something new, something completely different, would seem to be required.

Let's face the facts here. Unless students have exciting science teachers who understand science deeply, they will not learn science the way it's being taught today. Some may learn enough science vocabulary, enough laws of science, and enough formulas to pass their tests but even those students will not understand science and are unlikely to select science as a career.

An American Answer
Fixing science education in America requires an American perspective. We are a country of innovation, of entrepreneurship, and of hope.

We will not reduce science class sizes significantly soon. Schools have no money for more teachers, more buildings, or more lab equipment. We must find a way to teach great science courses to large classes. In New York City, class size is capped at 34 students. Because of budget considerations, classes with fewer than 30 students often are eliminated.

Teacher training cannot solve the problems by itself. It takes too much time to get all teachers through training, including new ones. There's little follow-up to ensure that teachers apply their training. For example, one teacher was sent to SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator) to learn about a computer system being made available to schools around the country. He returned to tell the community about the great experience he'd had. However, this program was never presented to any students.

School administrators should have a way to determine whether professional development is being utilized in classrooms.

Only one approach provides any hope of solving all of these problems - technology.

Using Technology
You can object that lots of technology has been applied to improving science education without success. However, the use of technology so far has mostly been pedestrian rather than innovative. For example, what is probeware but a computer and probe replacing a dedicated instrument such as a digital thermometer, a pH meter, or a colorimeter. Using probeware adds nothing new to the learning.

We've see many efforts to use simulations to help students learn science. These programs take time and require computers. They may be no more effective than a good video presentation such as the PBS Nova series or programs on the Discovery Channel that take fewer resources.

Some teachers substitute simulations for science labs. These simulations are one form of virtual activity that generates its data, objects, and phenomena using computer algorithms. While they are a valid interactive substitute for videos, they're not science labs. The National Research Council defined a science laboratory experience in America's Lab Report as follows.
"Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science."
This definition clearly excludes simulations. By this definition, a simulation is not a lab of any sort and therefore not a virtual lab. The purveyors of simulations would have you believe otherwise.

On the other hand, lots of alternatives exist for providing true virtual science labs. For example, Mohave Community College offers an oceanography course that includes real-world case studies using current oceanographic data including ocean predictions, satellites and water vapor content. MIT is working on iLabs, a system for providing access to expensive equipment for students to do experiments over the Internet.

These alternatives are limited in scope and cannot provide a full lab program for science students. We must have more. Taking the concept of remote, real-time labs one step further provides the answer.

The Smart Science® core learning system does just that. It prerecords the real experiments that might have been done remotely and many that just couldn't be done in real time. It then provides highly interactive software that allows students to collect their own personal data from these experiments. It also delivers extensive learning support and monitoring capabilities while capturing all student and teacher online interactions in a server database.

Solving the Problems
How can the Smart Science® system of integrated instructional lab units solve all of the problems of science education?

1. Class size.
Teachers can monitor students working on computers much more readily than those working on hands-on experiments. By rotating students between safe hands-on experiments and computer-based experimentation, a larger number of students can be managed.

Class sizes still should be reduced. The immediate benefit of using this specific technology is that larger class sizes can be accommodated right now without sacrificing the quality of the lab experience.

2. Teacher training.
Because the background material, the goals of a lab, the support material, and all other required pedagogical material can be included within an integrated instructional lab unit, the amount of teacher training required is reduced considerably. The teacher still must be good at teaching but won't necessarily have to be a science expert.

3. Little depth.
One problem with providing more depth in science classes is providing experiences that go into a topic in greater depth. Science labs provide that opportunity. However, the typical science labs (cookbook with answers known in advance) do not. In addition, science labs tend to use lots of resources: time, money, and space.

Excellent, online true science labs can fill the void here and allow great science course design that includes more depth for important topics.

4. Unprepared students.
Computer-based systems allow students to work at their own pace. They can sense that students must have remedial work and indicate those students to the teachers or even provide it to them directly. Explanations of mathematics are available. Vocabulary words are available. In short, every support imaginable can be made a part of the computer system.

Ready Now
The best part of this solution is that it's ready today at a very low cost, and that cost will go down as usage increases. A student can use this system today in an entire course for less than the cost of a lab book.

See for more information.

© 2008 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Finding Out

Science is really the activity of finding out about the world.

Other disciplines have finding out as their goals. For example, mathematics finds out about numbers and mathematical relationships. Psychology finds out about the way people think. Sociology finds out about human relationships.

Science seeks the find out about the world, and the world doesn't yield readily to inquiries. If it did, anyone might have made Galileo and Newton's discoveries. For that reason, science has developed methods of making these inquiries that involve provable hypotheses and reproducible results.

Scientists employ a different way of thinking than most other people do. Of course, it's not their sole thinking tool. Like others, they use hunches, instinct, and emotion. Unlike many others, they check their thoughts against reality in specific ways. Science requires both creativity and rational thought to explore the world and make new discoveries.

Carl Sagan used the phrase "baloney detection kit" to explain what makes the scientific approach different. Scientists must infer conclusions from uncertain data. They must avoid allowing their own personal bias to influence the results while allowing their imaginations to seek out different and unexpected conclusions.

I'd like to see all science students complete each science class with a step up in their "baloney detection kit" capabilities. This understanding of the nature of science, of scientific thinking, and of the complexity and ambiguity inherent in data from the real world is an important outcome of science courses. In too many courses, it gets lost as students struggle to memorize new vocabulary words, learn new laws with their equations, and manipulate formulas.

The science lab should be the time-out period from the words, laws, and formulas. It should be the time when students confront the complexity of extracting data from the real world and finding explanations for those data. Teachers should prepare students for this experience not by telling the answer that they're expected to find, but by explaining about concepts such as inference. Give them the foundation they require, not the edifice itself.

Online courses cannot lose this aspect of science courses. Of course, many science courses handle labs poorly. That's absolutely no excuse for online science courses to use those poor lab experiences as their standard -- easily exceeded. The standard must be the best science courses.

The best science courses, as indicated in America's Lab Report, routinely have students collect their own real data from the real world, analyze those data, and discuss their conclusions with the rest of their class. They don't collect data from simulations.

Online science courses can have real experiments with interactive, personal data collection. A number of means exist for that purpose among which is the Smart Science® system's integrated instructional lab units ( There's no excuse for settling for simulations instead of real labs in online courses. Combining real virtual labs with hands-on, at-home labs works very well to provide a full science learning opportunity to students. Do not substitute fake labs and fake science for the real thing.

© 2008 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Necessary, Not Sufficient

Analyzing tides
If you have read a few of my posts, you'll note that I feel very strongly that students should have some real science experiences in their science classes. With more and more hands-on labs being pushed aside by virtual labs, I'm concerned about the nature of those labs. If simulations are used as lab substitutes, students lose an imporant opportunity to learn science.

They may learn about science, the vocabulary, laws, and theories of science, but they won't have the opportunity of understand the nature of science.

Nevertheless, simply using real experiments from the material world will not suffice. This fact is the second important conclusion of America's Lab Report (recommended reading). The first important conclusion is that science lab experiences must use the data, objects, and phenomena of the "material world" in their investigations.

What is required in addition to reality? I see two broad areas where additional requirements lie. The first area is in the presentation of the lab units, and the second area concerns how the lab fits into the course.

When preparing for a science lab experience, instructors should allow students to own, at least in part, the work they're about to do. Put the lab into context as solving a problem. Have students do some "research" on the problem. They might talk, read, or do some simple exploratory experiments. Don't just tell them the answer. Allow them to think about it, to mull it over. Then, they'll have some reason to do the lab other than you telling them to.

After the lab is completed, and students have done some analysis, get them together to talk about it. What conclusions have they made? Did all students come to the same conclusions? If not, why not?

In the post-lab post-mortem, you should ask students to identify what they observed directly and what they inferred. Find out how much they think can be inferred from observations. Talk about the quality of data. If possible, talk about data that did not fit expectations and discuss why. Was it experimental error, experimental design, or something else?

What you do before and after a lab can elevate or depress the value of the lab. It can change the lab from a dull, repetitive experience into an exciting investigation.

The second area for making a lab useful in a course requires that you properly integrate the lab into the course. Labs should not take place before a proper learning foundation has been laid. They also should not occur long after the topic has been introduced. Students should see the lab as a natural part of the course flow.

America's Lab Report focuses on four goals for integration.

Science lab experiences must (1) "be designed with clear learning outcomes in mind," (2) "be thoughtfuly sequenced into the flow of classroom instruction," (3) "integrate learning of science content and process," and (4) "incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion."

Always realize that one of the clear learning outcomes that, according the the NRC, can only come in real lab experience is "understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work." Inasmuch as possible, this should be a learning outcome of every science lab experience because lab time is limited and precious. This goal may not be realized with only a few opportunities to experience it. Don't squander those opportunities on simulations masquerading as science labs. Reserve use of simulations and other visualizations (interactive or not) for non-lab class time.

© 2008 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Nature of Science

Mrs. Smith blogs at and discusses the nature of science. She takes seven aspects of the nature of science from Lederman, NG and JS Lederman. (2004) Revising Instruction to Teach the Nature of Science. The Science Teacher. 71: 36-39.

These are important enough to repeat here. Here is one great thing about the Internet. You don't have to go read The Science Teacher to get these significant nuggets of information.

1) "Students should be aware of the crucial distinction between observation and inference."2) "Students should understand the difference between scientific laws and theories."3) "All scientific knowledge is, at least partially, based on and/or derived from observations of the natural world."4) "Although scientific knowledge is empirically based, it nevertheless involves human imagination and creativity."5) "Scientific knowledge is at least partially subjective."6) "Science is socially and culturally embedded. [It] affects and is affected by the various elements and contexts of the culture in which it is practiced."7) "Scientific knowledge is subject to change."

She does a nice job of explaining each, so I won't repeat the effort. I'd like, however, to point out that understanding the nature of science is one of the seven America's Lab Report goals for science laboratory experiences and is one that is best satisfied by students performing investigations in the real world, not in simulations.

Three of those goals (mastery, teamwork, interest in science) are well handled outside of a lab setting. Good labs simply add to them.

One goal (practical skills) can mostly be done outside of labs. The single exception is the skill of operating lab equipment. That's not really a part of learning science anyway.

The remaining three goals are best accomplished in a lab setting. They are developing scientific reasoning, understanding the nature of science, and understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. America's Lab Report explains that the last goal can only be accomplished well within true science lab experiences as it defines them. That definition clearly excludes simulations.

Simulations are great learning tools, if done well and integrated into the curriculum well. They do not work as substitutes for science lab experiences. Student scientific investigations will not be scientific if their object is made up.

Of course, students must prepare for real investigations, and various exercises can help them do so. Among these are simulations and other activities.

You can still do virtual labs that provide access to data from the real world and do some hands-on labs too. But, please don't call a simulation a science lab. Thank you.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Mrs. Smith Teaches Science

I just ran across a nice blog called Mrs. Smith Teaches Science.

Several rather insightful comments suggest that Mrs. Smith understands many important facts about teaching science and is willing to learn more.

She only goes a bit astray in the area of virtual labs. The acid-base simulation she refers to in her post at is just too unreal to be used as more than a demonstration. With a real alternative available, why not go for that instead?

The simulation is created by a Java applet. That's certainly an improvement over the typical Flash animation simulation. However, it still has the problems of all simulations.

1. Ownership. Students don't really own their data. Sure, they can calculate the concentration of the unknown. However, they can do that with a completely paper lab.

2. Faith. Students see a drawing of the equipment and materials. Nothing looks real. They have to believe that the underlying algorithms work correctly for any choice of parameters. The data may fit some equation, but would a real titration fit?

3. Connection. Students cannot connect well to drawings. It's a gut thing. When you're doing an experiment, you should know that you're investigating the real world. After all, that's what scientists do.

4. Complexity and ambiguity. True science faces complex situations where investigators may come to different conclusions. Exposure to these situations will occur in real labs but not in simulations. Adding in fake error is insufficient -- because it's fake.

The Smart Science® learning system may be commercial, but it's not expensive. The cost per lab per student for access to a full course of virtual/hands-on labs (access only, not materials) is generally less than a dollar and usually much, much less. (Price depends on grade level, type of school [online, traditional, college, K-12], and number of labs.)

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Impossible Dream

Note: Above image taken from the Internet.
Ever since I can remember, I've loved a great challenge. What greater challenge than impossible? Basically being an optimist, I refuse to believe that I cannot rise to any challenge.

It's been my great fortune to have faced a number of "impossible" challenges and have succeeded. Of course, I did get to select the challenges.

What makes a challenge impossible? For me, it's an expert or knowledgeable person saying so.

However, none of those challenges were grandiose in scope. They were modest challenges that might take a few weeks or months to complete.

My current quest is much larger and qualifies as a "dream." It's my impossible dream.

About a decade ago, I took a long hard look at science education here in the United States and saw some problems. My children had taken the requisite series of science courses. What I saw bothered me. Then, I read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. I have an extensive science background. After all, I was a university chemistry professor and the chair of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society.

I also have an extensive software background and was a software development manager for a large computer manufacturer. I spent many years as a contract consultant bidding and writing software for Fortune 500 companies. I was doing one for Sun Microsystems when I became aware of a new and yet-unreleased language, Java.

From these small beginnings came my dream. I wished to reform science education and bequeath to everyone an excellent science education along with Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" that he says all scientists have.

With little money and great hope, my partner and I began to design software and courseware. We decided to concentrate on the student laboratory experience for several reasons. It was the part of the science course that held the most promise for learning to think scientifically, and it was the part of most science courses that failed to work.

We spent uncounted hours in libraries reading about science education in books and journals. We investigated the history of science education with special emphasis on science labs. We searched for the latest in technology applied to science labs.

Our astonishing conclusion was that science educators had essentially solved the problems of how to provide great science education over 100 year ago! Basically, they chose to have students learn science by doing science. Their solution had a small problem, however. It required very small classes of twelve of fewer students and highly trained, experienced teachers. These two requirements put the cost of these classes beyond the reach of most schools.

Most modern approaches to teaching science, at least the lab part, attempt to achieve learning science by doing science without fulfilling these two requirements. In some cases, they succeed by dint of very good organization and great classroom discipline.

My colleagues and I sought to overcome the two problems with technology, specifically Internet technology. We chose this path because it could deliver a great result at low cost and because we understood the technology already.

We went a step further and decided to avoid using simulations. We chose to provide students with real experiments instead and to build in scientific thinking as well. We even obtained a patent covering these two essential ideas, that is to say the implementation of them.

We call the resulting mixture of software and courseware the Smart Science® core learning system. You can find out more at

Why shouldn't students have access to excellent science labs no matter what community they live in? Students should learn to think scientifically. It's a great tool to add to your mental toolbox. The more that they can step away from rote memorization and explore the world through the processes and tools of science, the more likely they are to learn and to come to appreciate science.

I have just given you a glimpse of my impossible dream. I'd like to provide great science to our children at low cost and help them to think better and understand the world better too.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

When is a Lab not a Lab?

Unlike the old query, "When is a door not a door," this one is serious.

In education, science labs have traditionally meant spending time at a lab bench or hunched over a microscope or performing some other "scientific" activity. Later, students had to write about their activities, sometimes in a predetermined format.

Many of these lab experiences were the sort that Carl Sagan condemned in "A Demon-Haunted World."
"There were rote memorization about the Periodic Table of the Elements, levers, and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed. In high school laboratory courses there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off if we didn't get it. There was no encouragement to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes."
Almost all of us are familiar with those cookbook labs. Most of us found them wanting, except as a means to escape the ennui of lectures. While they may have been interesting exercises in learning about new ways of doing things -- using a bunsen burner, operating a microscope, weighing with a triple-beam balance, recording data correctly, and so on -- it was not intellectually stimulating. Some of us may have internalized that experience as emblematic of science. Too bad!

In a few classrooms, practicing technique was jettisoned in favor of challenging students to find out. Students are given problems to solve and guidance as they design experiments to find the answers to their challenges. They try out their ideas and collect data. After interpreting the data, trying out different ways of looking at it, they may redesign the experiments or create a presentation of their results. They do science.

The first experience may be done in a lab, but it's not a "lab." The second is.

Our challenge today stands as finding ways to use technology, especially Internet technology, to bring real lab experience to students. We must do so to raise our science education standards and to lower costs (both time and money) of providing quality science experience to our students.

Several people are making the effort and doing so seriously. Unfortunately, too many have fallen back to the relatively easy simulated labs that have populated our science education landscape. These simulations are not labs. They define the answer to our title question.

The path to a real solution cannot be easy. I can attest to that fact because I've been working on on solution for ten years. We've made a great progress (see and have much more to do. In order to provide adequate kinesthetic experience and experimental design opportunities, we blended virtual and hands-on experiments into "hybrid" labs. Someday, I hope to provide the latter in a fully virtual environment.

You can help. Don't use simulations as labs. Use them as learning tools for concepts, as visualizations. Scientists don't investigate simulations. Your students (or children or friends) shouldn't either.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Science Takes Imagination

Scientific method, as usually taught, is a linear process requiring no imagination or creativity. While large parts of science are pursued by simply seeking an empty place and filling it with data, much more is necessary. The "scientific method" turns out to be more about how results are reported than how science is conducted.

Students should develop an appreciation of this aspect of science, a part of the nature of science. Give students advance notice about problems they're to solve. Let them consider how to research the problem. Should they read, talk to others, or collect their own data? Perhaps, they'll do all three.

Whatever you do, make sure that students rely on real data from the real world. They should be encouraged to think for themselves. Rather than telling them their ideas are wrong, ask them how to test them. Provide a little guidance, but don't give them the total answer. Help them interpret their data, but don't interpret it for them.

You'll be developing scientific imagination and creativity, the basis for all of the great advances in science. You'll also be encouraging the love of science and the joy of doing science.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Complexity and Ambiguity

One virtual science lab system appearing on the market now attempts to help students to understand the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work by using an animated cartoon figure, an "avatar" in their words.

The avatar discusses problems with an experiment and asks about how to resolve them.

The fact that this approach uses audio, the avatar's voice, and a semblance of a person does not make this approach significantly different from a discussion in print of the same material. It's just an animated book. In either form, these canned examples can, at best, be considered an introduction to the topic.

Students must experience complexity and ambiguity for themselves. The best such experience will always involve students' own personal data taken from the real world and not from a simulation.

The experience is necessary but not sufficient. Without post-lab questioning and discussion, the nature of science may not be noticed by most students. Students should be asked whether science is exact, what science can infer about unseen objects and phenomena, whether different scientists will necessarily come to the same conclusions from the same data, and so on. They also should explain their answers.

Simulations do not lead to this sort of questioning. Real experiments are available both through hands-on "kitchen" labs and in virtual form. You don't have to resort to simulations for reasons of cost, safety, or time (or any other similar reason).

If a science lab experience really has the purpose of illuminating the nature of science, of bolstering scientific reasoning, and of illustrating the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, then students must engage the real world and think about both during and after their work.

Don't waste your students' lab time on fake science.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Saturday, November 01, 2008

What is a Science Simulation and Why?

Scientists use simulations. Therefore, goes the argument, students can use them in place of science labs. Looking at what simulations are and why scientists use them illustrates the problem with this logic.

A simulation is a model of something. Creating that model does not require a computer. Simulations predate computers by a very long time. One oft-used simulation has students shaking up a box of coins and removing those that land tails up. It's supposed to model radioactive decay.

You can calculate the distance-time relationship of a falling ball and compare to reality. The ideal simulation will not match the real ball due to both random and systematic errors. A Styrofoam ball may be very far from the calculated values.

Scientists know that their models are not perfect and use their own experience and sophistication to seek the aspects of their models that match reality and to understand those that differ. They use models to test their hypotheses when those hypotheses involve difficult formulations requiring extensive calculation.

Scientists do not investigate simulations. The science simulation is a tool. Scientists manipulate simulations to determine how well they fit the real world and then adjust their theories accordingly.

In order to use a simulation in this fashion, you must first investigate the real world and collect data. Then, you create your simulation and compare it to those data.

K-12 students generally don't possess this level of sophistication. Their "models" will be relatively simple equations or theories.

Having these students investigate simulations not only doesn't provide good science for them, it can result in an erroneous view of the nature of science. Here are some examples.

1. Science is precise, producing data without any random errors.
2. Interpretation of data is obvious.
3. Scientists all agree on everything scientific.
4. Experiments produce accurate results.
5. Background and culture do not affect the conclusions of scientists.
6. Science is a linear activity requiring no imagination or creativity.

This list can readily be expanded.

Even though scientists use simulations, they do not investigate simulations. Students shouldn't either because such investigations do not advance their understanding of science and are likely to make it worse.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Science Labs, Why Bother? What about Virtual Labs?

In case you haven't noticed, science labs can take up lots of time and money in a school. Students spend much of that time setting up and cleaning up. Teachers also have considerable preparation time moving equipment from storage for this once-a-year usage, mixing solutions, calibrating equipment, and even checking that equipment still works at all.

Repair and replacement of capital equipment takes money. So does replacing consumables. Sometimes, the experiments fail to work as planned. You get the idea. It's a lot of trouble.

Is the effort worth the results?

According to America's Lab Report, it often isn't. Unless teachers spend even more time integrating the labs into their courses and making sure that students aren't just doing cookbook procedures to find a result they've been told ahead of time, then the lab experience will be "poor."

Before deciding whether to use virtual labs, you should know why you're using any labs at all.

America's Lab Report sets up seven goals for science lab experiences. Three of these are definitely not limited to labs. They are (abbreviated) Mastery of Subject Matter, Teamwork, and Interest in Science. One is Practical Skills (of all sorts including the display and interpretation of data). The other three are more or less best learned in real experiences: Nature of Science, Scientific Reasoning, and Complexity and Ambiguity of Empirical Work. The last of these, according to America's Lab Report, can be learned only by true science lab experiences, which require data, objects, and phenomena from the material world. The other two, while not absolutely requiring true science lab experiences, also should have these experiences for best learning.

As long as we accept America's Lab Report, then the answers to the title questions become apparent.

We bother with science labs because they provide learning of some critical science understanding. Moreover, this understanding stands the students in good stead throughout their lives and even gives them, in Carl Sagan's words, a "baloney detection kit." Nearly a century ago, John Dewey pointed out that our citizens should have an understanding of science, that such understanding would improve our democracy.

Removing potentially good science labs, and replacing them with fake science such as simulations, makes a travesty of the entire science curriculum. Many online science courses do just that.

Just because you're online, does not mean that you're out of luck on true science lab experience. Take advantage of the alternatives to simulations, some virtual, some not, and some combined.

For more information, see

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Incredible History of Science Labs in Education

Science laboratories in education were first used sometime in the late 1800s. Since then, their purpose has changed. A very brief discussion of the purposes of this pedagogic tool will help understand the present ambiguous state of science labs and why the debate over their use in online learning creates such different opinions.

John Stuart Mill and William Whewell, in the middle 19th century set up definitions of science as an inductive pursuit with careful observations. From these facts, scientists cautiously draw conclusions, set forth hypotheses, and test them.

Science courses in schools at that time only taught rote memorization of words, laws, and formulas. Students sat in lectures and read textbooks.

The first chemistry laboratory at Yale (1847) was strictly for the use of scientists. Students were not allowed into it.

In the 1880s, universities began to allow students into their laboratories for the purposes of advanced scientific study. Soon, student scientific laboratories sprang into being - even in some high schools. We can imagine that these laboratories concentrated on teaching procedures and techniques that would be essential in a continuing scientific career.

However, some educators saw a larger need for students to understand science rather than just to learn about science and master the procedures and techniques then in use by scientists. They began to find ways for the science laboratory to become an opportunity for students to experience scientific discovery.

Prof. E. H. Hall of Harvard University was an early proponent of this concept in the United States. F. W. Westaway, a well-known science education advocate, also suggested that students should discover science instead of being told about it.

Despite these educators and others, laboratory experience persisted as cookbook procedures that emphasized technique and process. Why? Because teaching discovery labs takes inordinate resources. The instructor must have deep knowledge of the subject to be able to answer unexpected questions and guide students on their quests. Classes must be very small. Prof. Hall specified twelve students. Cookbook labs require very little in comparison from educator or educational establishment.

In the early 1900s, a liberal philosophy overcame education. Suddenly, social relevance became important. Laboratory experiments were abandoned in favor of "interesting" content. Of course, the pendulum has swung back again.

Faced with the necessity of providing laboratory experience to burgeoning classes along with state-mandated lengthy curricular requirements, educators again fell back on the old standby of prescribed laboratory activities. The big change: now they were projects lasting across several laboratory periods.

The Sputnik launch powered new interest in science in the 1950s. Government money was made available to schools to upgrade science facilities. Aside from an enlightened few, the rigid cookbook labs continued to dominate education.

Despite decades of recent effort and billions of dollars, we still see little change in the way science labs are used in 6-12 science education. The labs are infrequently integrated into the curricula. They rarely involve inquiry, exploration, or discovery. Too many science teachers view them as a necessity without any real purpose. The United States, in recent years, has consistently placed low in international tests of student science comprehension.

The growth of inexpensive access to the world through the Internet has the potential to change all of that. Internet technology can be used, as any tool might, well or poorly. Putting simulations on the Internet masquerading as labs takes away time and energy from true lab experiences and results in a poor science experience.

We have the technology to put real experiments on the Internet. I know because I've done it 150 times already. Each of the prerecorded real labs has a number of real experiments ready to use. These labs don't use simulations; they don't use Flash; they don't fool students into believing that science is absolutely precise.

Blending appropriate hands-on activities and projects with prerecorded real experiments that allow students interactively to collect their own personal data will build the best possible science experiences for our students.

Take a stand today for the ideas of a century ago that could not be implemented for ordinary students because of limitations in technology. We have it now. Let's get the schools to use it.

See for more information.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Simulations Teach the Concept But Not Science

At "The Principal's Blog," I read the following comment. "When I asked a conference participant, who happened to be an engineer, if he believed the simulation would be as good as the real experience, he felt like it would certainly teach them the concept."
You cannot disagree with this thought. Simulations, like books and videos and lectures and more, can "teach them the concept."

However, learning science is much more than learning concepts -- words, laws, formulas, relationships, and so on. Those are learning about science. Students must also learn science itself. Only by doing science do they learn science. Simulations do not allow students to do science.

This concept should be simple. Unfortunately, few people (other than scientists) really comprehend the essence of this matter. After all, most people took typical science courses in which they were not allowed to learn science but only learned about science.

Once you understand science, it becomes another way to view the world parallel to the ways you may be used to. Understanding science enriches your life and provides you with what Carl Sagan called a "baloney detection kit." You become more immune to predatory loans and other snake oil sales.

Understanding science will also help our country's students achieve better results on the international science exams we all read about in which we rank 27th or so.

So, how do students do science? By having science lab experiences that allow them to inquire, explore, and discover the real world. Simulations can help with concepts. They do not help with learning science. Only by applying the processes and methods of science to material world data, phenomena, and objects can they learn science. The National Research Council said as much in America's Lab Report.

Well-designed hands-on lab experiences work well if properly integrated into the curriculum. So do prerecorded real experiments with highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The latter can be found, at low cost, in Smart Science® integrated instructional lab units. See for details.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

MIT's iLabs are Great -- or Are They?

Sometimes a great concept just arrives too early or too late. I'm looking at the MIT iLabs project. NSF has kicked in $1 million to make it work for non-MIT students, i.e. regular students. The interface currently in place is too difficult for those below genius IQ to master.

However, I'm not writing to criticize the iLabs interface. I'd like to think really hard about exactly what they're doing and what Kemi Jona would like to do with the NSF money. He talks quite glibly about creating an eBay of online real-time programmable labs.

The iLab requires remotely programmable equipment with the ability to put results on an Internet link. That fact limits the range of experiments possible. Such equipment necessarily costs lots of money. Few schools will have that sort of equipment available to share.

Furthermore, the student will see the equipment as a black box and must have lots of additional instruction to appreciate fully the nature of the experiments being done. The information coming back from the equipment (as currently structured) is a string of numbers, not very exciting to the average student.

I see little chance that the iLab concept will expand to cover much of science education. If it remains viable, it may be a great experience for some students as a part of their science classes.

Consider that each time an iLab experiment is performed, all of the information becomes digitized before being transmitted. This information could be archived on a server database and provided to others on demand. Such a scheme would allow greater use of the equipment because if someone requests the same identical experiment, it will be immediately available from the database.

If some object to the repetitive nature of this scheme, you can readily record the same experiment several time to allow for normal experimental variation and chose the one for replay randomly. Take that concept one step further record all of the experiments that students might request. Then, the expensive equipment must be used only for a short period of time, rented if you will. The cost and feasibility of the entire operation goes way down and the likelihood of success goes way up.

You can also provide additional information in the digital feed such as images of the equipment while operating, images of the inside of equipment, and so on.

Moreover, you can embed the experience in a full learning scaffold so that students are forced to think about the experiment, must make predictions and analyze results. It can include post-lab assessments and online lab reports as well as substantial supporting materials.

Once you've created the system to store and deliver these experiments along with the learning support, there's no reason to limit the experiments performed to just those that can be run on programmable apparatus. After all, the programmable apparatus was only used so that experiments could be run on demand. With some clever video techniques and highly interactive software that allows students to collect their own personal data, you could cover all science areas that involve experiments and data collection.

Now, you have all of the benefits of the iLabs without the great expense or the problems associated with running an eBay-like facility for schools. You also have a much greater range of science that can be done. You have to wonder why the iLab people aren't proposing this marvelous extension of the iLabs idea when the technology to do it clearly exists.

Perhaps, it's because it's already been done - ten years ago!

Just take a look at

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Yet Another Simulated Lab

There must be gold in them thar hills.

I just took a look at Their demo is of the precipitation of chalk.

This new entry into science lab simulations raises an important question. What is the purpose of virtual science experiences? (I hesitate to call them "labs.")

The primary purpose of this particular one is to teach students lab procedures. There's no science in this example at all.

I have no problem with helping students understand lab procedures. I do have a problem with confusing lab procedures with doing science. As Albert Einstein so clearly proved, you can do great science without even going near a lab. Many scientists who do have labs use lab technicians to do the experimental work.

Here's my take on the potential purposes of virtual science experiences.

1. Learn lab procedures, techniques, and safety.
2. Visualize science processes such as plate tectonics, galaxy formation, molecular reactions, etc. that help students with concepts and cannot be viewed directly.
3. Perform real science experiments that aren't being done in classrooms due to cost, safety, time, space, or complexity.

Only the last item involves doing actual science and must, of course, use data, objects, and phenomena from the material world to be valid. Otherwise, the science experience really is just some combination of items 1 and 2. It should not be considered as a valid use of precious class lab time.

Some percentage of many science classes is devoted to lab work. That percentage might be 20% or 25% or some other fraction. During that time, students must experience science so that they can -

1. Develop an understanding of science,
2. Practice scientific reasoning, and
3. Understand the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

Using this time for other purposes diminishes the opportunities for students to gain these critical insights. Curriculum developers (including teachers who create their own curricula) must decide how much of their class time will be devoted to true student scientific investigations. That time must not be replaced by fake science in the form of simulated "labs."

© 2008 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Monday, October 20, 2008

Alternative to Virtual Labs: Don't Do Them??

Chad Orzel blogs at He discusses the use of virtual labs in AP science courses. In the end, he suggests that "I should also note that there's a clear alternative to teaching AP classes via "virtual labs": don't teach them. It's not the end of the world, after all."

In an earlier paragraph, he explains his position.
"In the end, though, I think that computer-based exercises are no real substitute for actual lab experience. Unless, that is, you can program the computer to have something really bizarre and inexplicable happen in one out of ten simulated experiments... Some of the chemical reactions should fizzle, some of the pigs being dissected should be missing vital organs, some of the physics data should just be screwy. That's what science is really like, after all."
Of course, he's speaking strictly of simulated science labs. Having the fake stuff he mentions doesn't really resolve the problem of simulations as lab substitutes. Here's a few of these problems.
  • Errors of science. Sometimes, a simulation will produce results that are simply inaccurate and misrepresent the real world. Let's face it, programmers make errors and so do software designers.
  • Precise results. The extreme precision (and accuracy) of simulation incorrectly gives students the impression that scientists work with the same sort of data. All a scientist has to do is ask the right question to probe the secrets of the universe. Nothing could be further from the truth, and students should not be misled.
  • Cartoons. The objects that students see in simulations are generally drawings and convey a cartoon-like quality. Students can be forgiven if they don't believe that what they're doing relates to the real world.
  • Failures. Simulated experiments always "succeed." Of course, the results are determined by an equation or algorithm and may not match real world data. Still, much learning can take place when an experiment doesn't quite work out. In a classroom, there's often not enough time to explore a failure. In virtual classes, students can look into the problem more deeply.
We've ended up with dueling professors. On one side, they argue that virtual labs have many benefits, especially for those in underserved areas. On the other, they argue that students arriving in college with no real lab experience are unprepared even for first-year, let alone second-year, science courses with their labs.

Wouldn't everyone like to have the best of both worlds? How many AP science students go on to take second-year science courses anyway? Wouldn't a one-semester lab-only course fill any gaps a student had in lab technique and safety?

I can tell you that you can have it both ways and at low cost as well as safely, efficiently, and effectively. Simply find an appropriate mix of hands-on labs (the inexpensive, safe kind) and prerecorded real experiments in a virtual setting with software that provides a highly interactive environment for collecting personal data.

My own answer can be found at Curricula using this technology have passed College Board audits for all three AP laboratory sciences.

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Science Teachers Have It Tough

I recently came across a blog about the problems that science teachers have. You'll find it at
"Science teachers have it tough. They have one of the most costly subjects in a school to teach, yet get a very small budget."
Ms. Jackson is totally correct in this statement. If we all can assume that textbooks are a similar cost in all courses, then which courses have as much capital equipment and expendables/consumables? All right, which of those are required courses? You just have to come up with science.

Of course, science teachers reach out to free (and low cost) simulations. And, that's great!

A serious problem arises, however, when they substitute those simulations for lab experience. Some of the key reasons for lab experiences in science classes are as follows.
  1. Understanding the nature of science.
  2. Developing scientific reasoning.
  3. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.
That all may seem a bit abstract. However, these goals are critical for any student in a science class. Leaving a class without advancing these goals means that the time in the class was wasted.

Really! Who cares if you can list the first twenty elements in the periodic table or recite the level of taxonomic classification or name the eons, eras, and epochs of geologic time? You can look that stuff up. The real question surrounds the use of this information. And, not just use but wise use.

The three goals above are from America's Lab Report. In that same report, the National Research Council states that the typical American student's lab experience is poor. Their reasons include the lack of meeting these goals among others. They point out that in order to be a science laboratory experience, an activity must use data from the "material world." Simulations do not.

These days, science teachers can find more and more options other than simulations to provide quality lab experience to their students. One such option, the Smart Science(R) core learning system, although not free, is inexpensive and meets all of the goals of America's Lab Report as well as its definition of a science laboratory experience. Students work with real experiments at a cost of pennies per experiment. By blending inexpensive and safe hands-on experiments with these prerecorded real experiments, our overtaxed science teachers can produce great science classes and have their students leave the class understanding what science is really all about. At the same time, they can demonstrate a cost savings to their department head or principal.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

NACOL on Online Science Labs

The North American Council for Online Learning has published NACOL Goals, Guidelines, and Standards for Student Scientific Investigations. I am a member of NACOL and of the committee that produced this document.

You'd expect some pretty savvy thoughts about online science labs here. After all, these are the online learning people. You do get a strong pitch for online education and the potential to build really great science courses.

Their document relies heavily on America's Lab Report published by the National Research Council. Yet, it ignores the central message of the report. After lamenting the state of science labs in education and the state of research on this subject, the report begins with a definition of a science laboratory experience (called a student science investigation, which means the same thing, in the NACOL document). The report recommendations depend upon that definition.
“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”
The parenthetical phrase allows the use of such virtual experiences as analysis of large online scientific databases despite the emphasis on "interact directly with the material world." As long as the data come from the material world, they might form the basis for valid "laboratory experiences." If not, they do not. It's really that simple, and the report explains why.

The NACOL document, by ignoring this basic premise of America's Lab Report, devalues its discussion of the other recommendations of the report. Someone could read the entire NACOL document quite carefully and come away with two inaccurate conclusions.

1. (NOT TRUE) The NACOL document is true to America's Lab Report.

2. (NOT TRUE) Simulated labs are an excellent substitute for traditional labs.

While NACOL Goals, Guidelines, and Standards for Student Scientific Investigations provides a vigorous argument in favor of online science instruction, it omits a critical factor required to make that instruction valid and opens the door to fake simulated labs. As its sole serious defect, I would like to see it corrected as soon as possible and have communicated my opinion to NACOL in all possible ways. So far, they have not responded.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What About Lab Kits?

Several companies promote their science lab kits. Some suggest that unless you use (their) lab kits, you are providing poor science to your students. That's simply not true.

I have encountered three such firms (I'm sure there's more out there) all based in Colorado. What is their attitude toward science education and how can they help your students have a better lab experience?

Here they are.

Quality Science Labs, LLC
eScience Labs, Inc.

At-home science kits simply will not provide a complete science experience for students. The reasons are simple.

1. Safety.

One recommended AP Chemistry lab dissolves copper alloy samples in concentrated nitric acid. Even in a supervised and fully-equipped science lab, this experiment is dangerous. At home, you shouldn't even think about it. Besides the danger of the nitric acid, the reaction produces poisonous nitrogen oxides and should be run in a fume hood.

Homes simply are not equipped to handle this sort of experiment.

This issue is hardly unique to this particular experiment. Many chemicals are dangerous. Some experiments involve high temperatures or voltages and even radioactive materials.

Without the ability to use a wide range of equipment and materials, students have limited investigation options.

2. Cost.

The copper alloy experiment requires that you weigh the samples very precisely because you're measuring the percentage of copper in the alloys. It then requires that you dissolve them, dilute them precisely with a volumetric flask, and measure the light absorption with a spectrophotometer. Analytical balances and volumetric flasks are expensive. A spectrophotometer definitely will not be found in any lab kit due to extreme cost.

Many other experiments require expensive equipment such as microscopes, pH meters, and the like. Without this equipment, students ability to investigate may be severely limited.

Some people hold that simulations can fill in the gaps. I've dealt with that area in previous posts. Simulations (algorithmic generation of data, objects, and phenomena) absolutely cannot substitute for science lab experience.

Given that at-home labs cannot fulfill completely the goals of science lab experience, what do the science lab kit providers above say about the idea of augmenting the experience somehow?


Here's a headline from the web site of LabPaq.
"Created by Science Professors Because There's No Substitute for Hands-On Labs"
This sort of absolutist philosophy really has no place in the dialog regarding online education and science labs. Of course, there are substitutes. Furthermore, hands-on labs are not necessarily the best labs. Much depends on their design and other factors. For example, can the student write a passable lab report without even touching the materials? How much opportunity does the student have for experimental design? How much science can the student investigate?


Here's a quote from Nicolas Benedict of eScience.
"We can make predictions based on these models, but in reality it is only through hands-on experimentation that actual interactions can be documented."

As I interpret this quote, Dr. Benedict also eschews virtual experiences. Does that mean that he views the Mars Rover program as not being science? No one's hands are on the surface of Mars. The data come to the scientists after a rather long delay.

I would correct this statement to replace hands-on experimentation with the more reasoned wording in America's Lab Report. “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As long as the data are from the material world and students use the tools, etc. of science to analyze those data, you have a true science learning experience. Hands-on, although nice, is not necessary.

Quality Science Labs

John Eschelman, the president of
Quality Science Labs makes an effort to provide a total science experience and is open to using virtual experiences in conjunction with his own labs.

You won't find dogma on his web site. He simply explains why his kits save time in preparation and that they have complete lab lessons ready to use. Nowhere does he make the statement that only a hands-on lab is good science. If you are looking for lab kits, he has them along with full instructions and questions that help focus learning.


If you're going to buy a lab kit, I think that you should do so from a provider who has a reasonable attitude about the value of lab kits, someone whose goal is supporting your student(s) in learning science. Check out their sites and public pronouncements to see whether they think that only hands-on experiments are any good and whether they recognize that virtual experiments also can be great science.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blending Virtual and Physical Experiments

One complaint about virtual labs, no matter how good, is that they miss important learning experiences. While I believe that this complaint is exaggerated, it does have some merit. Mostly, virtual labs lose the kinesthetic experiences: weight, smell, texture, and so on.

With current technology, doing open-ended experimental design in a virtual setting is quite difficult if not impossible. You come much closer to this goal with "hands-on" labs - if properly designed and implemented.

For these two reasons, a full set of science lab experiences during a course should include some traditional (hands-on) labs. The open question remains: what fraction of lab experience should be virtual and what should be traditional? Note that by virtual I do not mean simulated. Simulated "labs" should be an oxymoron. You should never see "simulated" as an adjective for "lab" because simulations are not science and are not valid substitutes for science investigations.

The Smart Science(R) team has taken the approach of integrating (or "blending") virtual and "hands-on" experiments into single lab when it makes sense to do so. We have plenty of purely virtual labs as well as purely "hands-on" labs as well as the blended labs, which we refer to a hybrid labs.

We aim for a total science investigation experience that includes as much hands-on work as is reasonable for someone working at home. Teachers, schools, and districts may make changes to this system so that it more closely matches their requirements.

The resulting hybrid labs may be viewed in two ways. Either they have hands-on lab that is extended with virtual experiments, or they have a virtual lab that is extended with hands-on experiments. Remember that the virtual experiments are real. They're just prerecorded. Students take their own personal data.

In this manner, we fill the hands-on experiment gap. Due to time, safety, cost, space, and other considerations, students don't investigate fully. They may do a single experiment, for example. By providing a rich set of virtual (but real) experiments, we allow students to investigate more completely.

We also, as indicated above, fill the virtual lab gap by allowing students the opportunity to have a kinesthetic experience and to do experimental design to a greater extent than allowed within the virtual framework.

The resulting hybrid lab potentially provides a far superior learning experience to even a well-designed traditional lab. It beats typical traditional labs and simulations by a mile!

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