Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are Science Labs Vanishing from K-12 Classes?

The pressures on science teachers just keep increasing. Authorities have been taking away their labs for years.

High-stakes testing requires time for the test and for preparation. Where does that time come from? Often, it comes from the lab time because labs are inefficient at learning content, the main focus of high-stakes tests.

Safety regulations have increased considerably in recent years. Now, you cannot have mercury in your classroom at all, for example. States and districts have banned experiments considered hazardous, an action that further limits the ability of teachers to provide lab experience to students.

Budget cuts have hit science departments particularly hard. The cost of providing expendibles and maintaining equipment for experiments has forced the removal of many excellent lab experiences from curricula.

Because many science teachers have been asked to teach in unfamiliar areas, they aren't prepared to develop and run effective labs in these areas. As a result, they do fewer labs.

At the same time, authorities are asking science teachers to provide more lab experience for their students. They rightly argue that such experiences, if done well, can help generate enthusiasm for science, help in understanding the nature of science, help improve scientific reasoning skills, and generally improve student outcome in science courses.

I say that these contradictory trends can only be resolved by the innovative use of technology, and I have chosen to work toward that end. My efforts are beginning to bear the fruit of interest from major online schools, large school districts, and important publishers.

Here's a comparison of the different means that people now employ to provide lab experience to high school students. The list includes hands-on experiments, simulations, large online databases, remote robotic experiments, and prerecorded real experiments. I have been working on this last item.

Simulationsfree to midnoneshorthighlownovery large
Online DBsfreemidmid

free to lowmid to highmidhighlownosmall
lowhighshorthighlownovery large

NOS means "Nature of Science"
Design means "opportunity for experimental design"
Range means "range of experiments available"

Clearly, the choices you make for science labs depend on your goals for the labs. If cost is your primary consideration, then you'll minimize the number of hands-on labs you do. For example, you can use free simulations while sacrificing quality and the nature of science.

Remote robotics and large online databases can be used but, due to their small range, can only fill in for a small amount of a typical high school science course at best.

In my opinion, there's really no contest. Trim down the number of hands-on labs by eliminating those that cost too much, take too long, or don't work well to teach an understanding of the nature of science. Replace these labs with prerecorded real experiments. Pay close attention to the four lab integration goals of America's Lab Report. Ideally, increase the number of investigation experiences by adding more prerecorded real experiments. Find a place in your course for one or two ongoing investigation projects each semester. These projects may involve online databases, remote robotics, hands-on work, field trips, and even prerecorded real experiments or some combination.

You can improve the student investigation experience and handle budget shortfalls too.

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