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.

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