Saturday, November 01, 2008

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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1 comment:

Rosemary West said...

Even without a real interest in science, I think that an understanding and appreciation of scientific methods is something everyone could use. Every day we are bombarded with information both good and bad (probably mostly bad). If we don't know how to ask the right questions and evaluate the answers, we are at great risk of making very poor choices in life. A little bit of experience in doing the research, testing the hypothesis and critiquing the methods is good for everyone.