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.

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