16 August 2005

NRC Report on High School Science Labs

Last week, the National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Science) released a report on high school science labs. The story has been heavily covered by the mainstream media (e.g., the Associated Press story in USA Today), but has been mentioned in only a few blogs (e.g., in Education Wonks). I’m a little surprised, because many science blogs have been complaining about the state of science education in the US, particularly as it relates to understanding the theory of evolution. But it is in the hands-on experience, in the lab class (one hopes), that students get a real appreciation for how science is done.

The NRC report says that, on average, a high school student spends one class period per week having a “laboratory experience”, defined as direct interaction with the world or data drawn from it. The work is typically narrow in scope, often concentrating on the mechanics of lab work, and is seldom integrated into the classroom lesson plan. Ideally, the labs should follow the “four established principles for effective science instruction”:

  • Design science lab experiences with clear learning outcomes in mind
  • Thoughtfully sequence lab experiences into science instruction
  • Integrate learning science content and learning about the processes of science
  • Incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion

That this doesn’t happen is blamed mostly on inadequate teacher training and (to a lesser extent) on the organization of schedules, space and resources within the school.

The report is available for on-line reading at the National Academies’ publication site.

I’ve had some experience with this problem, from having been a teacher (undergraduate physics, both for science and non-science majors) and from having been on a citizen advisory committee for the County School Board. I have a lot of respect for the preparation that K-12 teachers go through to give their kids the best instruction they can. Thus, I would look closely at the factors that dominated the concerns of the school teachers with whom we worked:

  • There were usually only enough experimental setups to support groups of at least four students working together. That makes it hard to give each one a chance to get the full experience within one class period.
  • Even if the classes are of modest size (on the order of 20 students), it’s hard for one teacher to circulate among them to provide each student with guidance and interpretation as they work.
  • Most high school teachers have no support, so they are responsible for setting up the apparatus before class and taking it down afterwards. It is hard to find the time to do that, especially if the space has to be used by other classes during the same day.
  • The crush for classroom space is so strong that there are usually no dedicated storage rooms for the experimental setups. Instead, they are either compressed into a closet, or into shelves on the side of the room. That makes it hard to maintain them, to check that they are working, and to protect them from the prevailing entropic forces.

It seems to me that this is one of those problems that can be solved by throwing money at it. Pay for an addition to the school to provide safe, organized storage space. Pay for more experimental setups. Pay for a teacher aide to be responsible for the pre-class setup and checkout and the post-class cleanup. After we do the obvious stuff, then we can see what else needs to be addressed with the teachers.


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