In a paper-and-pencil lab, the instructor hands out copies of laboratory "data," which may have been created from equations and not taken from real experiments. Students then fill in provided tables with the data and calculations based on that data. Finally, they answer questions about the results.
What are the benefits of paper-and-pencil labs?
- low cost
- minimal time required
- high safety
- lab technique does not affect results
- no experimental design
- likely to have unreal data
- no kinesthetic experience
- no visual experience
- data not dependent on student technique
- data not dependent of student judgment
With so many defects in these labs, whether pencil-and-paper or simulations, you can see why so many educators have pushed back very hard to the point where they insist that only hands-on labs can be appropriate for science education. It's a natural reaction by those appalled by the large infusion of simulations into the laboratory part of many science curricula.
However, these hands-on purists are throwing out the baby with the bath water. By denying any lab but a hands-on lab, they're making advances in science education difficult and limiting their student experiences severely.
They should be searching for means to make new advances in technology available in science education. The goals must include the following.
- lower cost of true science lab learning experiences
- improve safety of science lab experiences
- expand range of science lab experiences available to students
- use student class and homework time more efficiently
- provide exposure to the nature of science and all that it implies
On the other hand, many hands-on labs are merely exercises in lab technique. How many students will find pipetting techniques valuable in the future? Other hands-on labs have been structured as "verification" labs, a class of labs that was railed against by F. W. Westaway nearly a century ago and by Carl Sagan much more recently. Students know all of the science and the numerical result expected before entering the lab. They are simply to verify this information.
Technique and verification labs do not teach science. They are a waste of time and money. Worse, they give students the impression that science is dull and uninspiring.
What's to be done? One way to view the options is to look at the Mars Rover program. It's real science, and not science pedagogy. So, you must be careful about drawing too close of an analogy. I'll be posting more on this analogy soon.
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