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

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