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Momentum Building for Hands-On Science Learning

May 11, 2010 7 min read
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The postings on the National Lab Day website are akin to something you might find through an online dating service. Only these aren’t from lonely singles looking for a soul mate. They’re from teachers seeking help with hands-on science projects, whether the expertise of a scientist or engineer or money to help pay for a special activity or laboratory equipment.

The titles give a flavor of what teachers are after: “Extreme Science Lab Make Over,” from a teacher in Webster, Texas. The “Butterfly Garden,” from Aurora, Ill. “Cells R Us,” from Port Charlotte, Fla. “ ‘Do’ Science Not ‘View’ Science,” in Summerville, Ga. And “Cadaver Lab,” in Missoula, Mont.

National Lab Day is a public-private initiative (but not a one-day event, despite the name) launched this school year to bring more “authentic, hands-on, discovery-based lab experiences to students,” says a flier describing the venture.

“We’re putting aside the textbook for a little bit,” said Jack D. Hidary, an entrepreneur in the finance and technology sectors who is chairing the initiative. “We’ve got astronomers working with kids. We’ve got doctors coming in, ... scientists from NASA.”

Amid growing national attention to promoting education in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, including from President Barack Obama, a number of recent efforts have emerged to address what’s seen as a critical component: helping students get access to high-quality laboratory experiences. They range from the advent of National Lab Day, to plans to rethink and enhance the lab component of Advanced Placement courses as part of an ongoing AP science redesign, to an initiative by the nonprofit Center for Excellence in Education to promote new models for fostering effective lab education in up to a dozen states.

Just last month, the Center for Excellence in Education hosted a National Lab Skills Symposium in Washington that brought together educators, researchers, federal officials, and others to discuss improving lab education and identifying best practices.

Christopher Altamarino, 16, examines a water sample in a flask during a science class at East Side Community High School in New York City.

“There are some very encouraging things happening,” said Susan R. Singer, a biology professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. She chaired a committee that produced a 2005 National Research Council report on laboratory-based education. The report sounded an alarm about the “dismal” quality of lab experiences for most high school students.

Ms. Singer especially highlighted the plans to retool the AP science curricula and exams, which she says represent an important shift in lab education that could have effects beyond AP classes.

“The goal is to get away from ‘cookbook’ labs and find ways to get these labs more deeply integrated in the curriculum, not done in May after the AP exams are finished, which sadly happens,” she said. “I think the AP will drive a lot of the other curriculum, ... because how do you get kids to the point where they can do this kind of lab learning?”

Getting the Experience

The issue of lab-based education gained heightened attention with the NRC’s release in 2005 of “America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science.” The report said that laboratory experiences have the potential to help students master science subject matter, increase their interest in the field, and develop scientific-reasoning skills, but that in general, that potential is not being met.

Most students’ lab experiences are “isolated from the flow” of classroom instruction, “fail to integrate student learning about the processes of science with learning about science content,” and “rarely incorporate reflection and discussion among the teacher and the students,” it said.

The report also found that teacher-preparation programs often fail to provide science teachers with the pedagogical and content knowledge to carry out effective lab instruction, and that once teachers are on the job, few opportunities exist for them to improve their lab teaching. Furthermore, the NRC study said schools serving large percentages of non-Asian minority children and those from low-income families are less likely to have adequate lab facilities.

Drafted by a committee of experts, “America’s Lab Report” sought to define more clearly a high school laboratory and its purpose. In the end, the report focused on the notion of “laboratory experiences,” which it said provide “opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data-collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

“A lab is an experience, not necessarily a physical place,” said Ms. Singer, who helped write the report and serves on the National Academies’ Board on Science Education.

Organizers of National Lab Day have been working hard to drum up attention for their initiative, a partnership among federal agencies, foundations, professional societies, and other STEM-related organizations, such as the National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and the National Science Foundation. Both President Obama and, just last week, first lady Michelle Obama, have publicly promoted it.

The emphasis is not only on promoting hands-on science, but also on connecting students with professionals to inspire them.

The actual day falls this week, May 12, when a variety of activities are planned across the country, but organizers say the idea is to build ongoing connections.

Mr. Hidary, the initiative’s chairman, in likening the design of the National Lab Day website to online dating, said: “One out of eight marriages are from dating websites.”

Teachers register online and describe the projects they’re looking for help with. Once a request is posted, a teacher is matched with a list of local volunteers and potential funders who have registered and get notified. Volunteers can browse requests online.

The goal is to have 10,000 projects move forward by the end of this year, Mr. Hidary said,though he conceded that that was a “stretch goal.”

AP’s Role

Several experts point to the ongoing AP science redesign as a powerful lever for transforming lab education. The College Board, in close consultation with outside experts, is working to redesign AP courses and exams in biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science—work that is expected to bring a reformulated and enhanced role for lab education. Overall, the redesign seeks to foster students’ deep understanding of science by limiting the breadth of content covered and emphasizing the practice of scientific inquiry and reasoning. Changes to courses would take place no sooner than the 2012-13 academic year.

As part of that work, the definition of a lab in AP courses is being expanded and aligned with the vision laid out in the NRC report, said Tonya D. Sharpe, the director of AP science at the New York City-based College Board. “We use that as our foundation.”

Lab investigations in AP courses, she said, will be “integrated throughout the curriculum, not treated as discrete activities. ... We also have a great emphasis on student-directed and inquiry-based activities.”

She added: “We want students to be able to think like scientists.”

At the same time, an effort recently launched to craft next-generation national science standards is also expected to envision an enhanced and rethought role for lab-based education. (“Work Begins on ‘Next Generation’ of Science Standards,” Feb. 10, 2010.)

Thomas E. Keller, a senior program officer at the NRC, in Washington, said it’s too soon to discuss details of the planned standards, which proponents hope will shape future state standards. But he said that work, like the AP redesign, will be guided in part by the “America’s Lab” report and other NRC reports on science education.

“We’re going to be consistent with that research that says kids need to be engaged and involved with what they’re doing,” Mr. Keller said.

Exemplary Models

Meanwhile, the Center for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit organization based in McLean, Va., that, among other activities, leads the annual USA Biology Olympiad competition for high school students, has plans under way to ratchet up its work promoting high-quality lab-based experiences for students.

The group is planning to work with eight to 12 states, beginning with Indiana and Virginia, through public-private partnerships to improve lab education.

The effort will target key players in each state, from high school educators to universities, corporations, state officials, and others. It will promote promising models of hands-on and virtual-based science education, with an eye toward practices that are cost-effective, replicable, measurable, and seen as particularly likely to succeed in rural, urban, and other frequently challenged learning environments.

At the April symposium, the Center for Excellence in Education identified six programs that it views as exemplary models of lab education—and that will help inform its work in states—including the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative and UTeach, a program developed at the University of Texas at Austin that aims to produce teachers with deep content knowledge in math and science.

“We are not doing a cookie-cutter approach,” said Joann P. DiGennaro, the center’s president, “because one state is not like another.”

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Momentum Building for Hands-On Work in Science Education


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