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 www.smartscience.net for more information.
© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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