My Students Need to Turn Knobs in Labs

“In general, obsolete technology is obsolete for a reason. Monocles are no exception.”
Neil Blumenthal

Many science faculty view laboratory classes as a central component of science education.  Many groups have come out in favor of the laboratory class. According to the America Chemical Society (ACS), “Hands-on laboratory science experiences are critical to the learning process across all areas of study, beginning with kindergarten and continuing through post-secondary education.” (Public Policy Statement 2017-2020) The National Science Teachers Association says “For science to be taught properly and effectively, labs must be an integral part of the science curriculum.” (NSTA Position Statement)

What is the laboratory class? According to America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science “Laboratory experiences 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.” (NRC 2006 p. 3) while the ACS says, “well-designed laboratory experiences develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as gain exposure to reactions, materials, and equipment in a lab setting.” (ACS Public Policy Statement 2017-2020)

While these definitions have some similarities, they also have differences.  I know science faculty that think we should get rid of science labs and faculty that believe we can’t teach science without them.  The thing that surprises me the most is that a many science faculty tell me that one of the most important aspects of laboratory science is learning to use the equipment.

I was involved in a redesign of a physics laboratory course; this course had not been reviewed or updated in, let’s just say “a really long time.”  We were discussing an acceleration due to gravity lab.  The main goal of this lab was to understand that acceleration due to gravity is independent of mass.  This experiment is often run using an air track which is a device that uses air to produces a relatively frictionless surface for a “car” of different masses to run on.  I won’t go into the reasons but setting up the air track to get accurate readings can be difficult.

Several of us proposed some changes to make the set-up easier so that students could collect more significant amounts of data; this would give us more opportunities to build analysis and data testing into the lab report. One of the faculty members argued that he set up his lab so that the students had to spend 80+% of their time setting up the equipment because the most important thing for the students was to “learn” how hard it was to collect accurate data.  Ask yourself what does this have to do with the learning goal?

While developing biology labs, many faculty members have told me “my students have to learn to twist the knobs on a microscope.”  I graduated from graduate school in 2006 even then every microscope I used was connected to a computer and most of them could not be run without a computer.  I rarely twisted knobs.  Additionally, most of these labs had learning goals associated with learning to identify cellular organelles or the differences between different types of muscles.  Even if the students end up using a non-automated microscope what does twisting knobs have to do with the learning goals?

Beyond an incorrect aliment with learning goals in a world where technology is rapidly evolving it is almost impossible for student labs to teach the use of equipment that will not be obsolete by the time they graduate.  As Hofstein and Lunetta said “It is unreasonable to assert that the laboratory is an effective and efficient teaching medium for achieving all goals in science education” (Review of Educational Research Vol. 52, No 2 pp. 201-217) They do suggest that laboratory activities can be used to develop inquiry, problem solving, and observational skills.

Over the last few decades, all this mixed information has allowed laboratory education to come under increased attack.  Several years ago, I worked with an assistant dean of engineering to develop an assessment tool he could use to reinforce the value of lab classes because the college wanted to cut back on lab classes.  Beyond this example lab classes have been subject to a lot of attack over recent years.  From an administrative point of view, there are questions about the cost; laboratory classes are the most expensive classroom on campus. 

Beyond cost laboratory classes are often assigned the same learning goals as the lecture classes.  Some argue if the two classes are doing the something couldn’t the extra time be better used on additional material? Especially since there are countries that don’t have lab courses in their curriculum. (Science Education Vol 88, #3, p. 397-419)

So, what does this mean for faculty members and instructional designers in science?  First when it comes to laboratory classes making sure we have clearly defined learning goals may be even more critical than it is in lecture classes.  Making sure that the activities in the lab support the learning goal are a must.  Lastly, we need to spend more time thinking about why we use labs, what labs can be used for that other forms of education can’t and focus on them.  If we want lab science courses to last, we need to start fighting for them now.

Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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