Making Science Labs a Priority

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In January, an article in The Washington Post told the story of a group of Maryland science teachers who are learning how to replicate their DNA. Their school system’s DNA Resource Center, funded by six-figure annual grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has developed nine lab experiments that teach biotechnology concepts, according to the Post. The whole enterprise, it said, is “managed by a handful of part-time staff members and housed at Thomas S. Wootton High School in a supply room filled with pipettes and flasks. … The center staff trains teachers to use the lab activities in their classrooms and delivers all of the equipment and consumable materials that the exercises require.”

Last year, the center trained 70 teachers and provided more than 13,000 lab kits. School officials anticipate the budget for the center—about $280,000 in grant funds last year—will rise to about $350,000 this year, when the program expands to middle schools.

Kudos to the Montgomery County, Md., school system for implementing this initiative. But we have to ask: Why is this news? It shouldn’t be. Lab experiences and centers like this one should be commonplace in every high school building nationwide. Yet far too many school science labs are dismal at best. In fact, many students are selecting not to participate in science after high school because of the subpar facilities and instruction.

A few years ago, the National Research Council conducted a survey to assess the state of the nation’s high school science laboratories. Its conclusions were distressing. There was no consensus in the field on what, exactly, the high school lab experience should be. The survey also disclosed that most laboratory exercises do not have clear learning outcomes, do not integrate the learning of science content with processes of science, and tend to be isolated from the classroom science instruction.

"Good teachers know that high-quality laboratory and field experiences are an essential part of inquiry—the process of observing, asking questions, and forming hypotheses."

Shortly after the NRC report was issued, the organization I direct, the National Science Teachers Association, surveyed its members and asked teachers about the lab experiences at their schools. These responses reflect what many teachers told us:

“In my urban inner-city school, I teach a lab science in an old business room. There are no tables, benches, water or gas service, sinks, fire extinguishers, eyewash stations, fire blankets, or other equipment. In addition, while there is a high rate of attrition towards the end of the year, each September starts with 50 students in each class.”

“I have no specific, safe area in which to conduct labs. My yearly budget is the same as it was 12 years ago. I must purchase all my own equipment and supplies. I have no safety equipment other than a portable eyewash station and a fire extinguisher. My district claims labs are ‘extracurricular.’”

“While I do not teach high school science currently, but do teach in a two-year community college, I see many students entering with virtually no lab experience. While some students come quite prepared, it’s very frustrating for me to have students coming into a college biology class with no knowledge of basic lab equipment and techniques, such as using beakers, graduated cylinders, pipettes, or even basic microscopy skills.”

“I have not learned how to facilitate real thinking and essential planning for authentic lab experiences. I don’t know what students really need in an introductory chemistry experience at the high school level, and I cannot figure out how to teach logical thinking and sequencing to 20-plus students in lab at the same time.”

“Many teachers in my district, which is well-funded and well-equipped, lack the confidence to conduct lab experiences. They most often have poor classroom management, and therefore believe that the students would not practice safety, and that someone could be injured.”

These survey results tell us that many schools do not see science facilities as a necessary part of science instruction, and many teachers simply cannot conduct high-quality science labs. Administrators need to be adequately trained to recognize high-quality science and technology education and must work with their science departments and teacher leaders to support educators to maintain the high-level programs that are needed. Each school needs a lab budget, and should not be dependent on the pockets of the struggling teacher.

One of the most important and powerful tools in science education is providing students with the opportunity to interact directly with natural phenomena or with data collected by others. Good teachers know that high-quality laboratory and field experiences are an essential part of inquiry—the process of observing, asking questions, and forming hypotheses. They also know that for science to be taught well, labs must be an integral part of the science curriculum. This is why thousands of science educators nationwide have embraced National Lab Day.

National Lab Day, scheduled for the first week of May 2010, is more than just a day—it’s a new five-year, nationwide initiative to support science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education in schools by connecting teachers with professionals in these fields (think, to bring more hands-on, inquiry-based lab experiences to students.

National Lab Day is one of the public-private partnerships that make up President Barack Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative. More than 200 scientific societies and associations, representing six million STEM professionals, have pledged to support National Lab Day, or NLD. At the NLD website, teachers can post projects or request funding for equipment and other resources, ask for expert help with hands-on projects or lesson plans, and much more. The teachers are matched with STEM professionals, college students, or volunteers who have also registered on the site, and can assist with the expertise, resources, and/or funding needed. Projects can also center on computer labs or outdoor labs—anywhere students can observe, explore, record, and experiment, and get their hands dirty and their minds engaged, and where projects and lessons in the STEM subjects can come alive.

Is National Lab Day a silver bullet for STEM education? Probably not. But this movement can address a problem that has long been ignored by far too many schools. Building ongoing, long-term collaborations between STEM professionals and schools and teachers will help improve school facilities and provide discovery-based science experiences for all students.

If America is serious about educating its children in science, then all of us need to help provide better-quality lab experiences and equipment. Montgomery County’s DNA Resource Center is a model effort designed to bring together community experts, facilities, training, and equipment. And it should be replicated in every district in the country. National Lab Day can and should be an ongoing part of providing teachers everywhere with the tools and community resources that will give their students a high-quality lab experience.

Vol. 29, Issue 31

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