Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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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