Improving the Quality
of U.S. High School Science Labs
Most U.S. high school science labs are themselves ripe for experimentation.
On average, high school students enrolled in science classes spend about one period each week on laboratory work, such as comparing different cell types under a microscope. Lab activities have the potential to help students reach important goals, including cultivating an interest in science, developing scientific reasoning skills, and mastering science subjects. However, that potential is not being realized, says a new report from the National Research Council.
The report uses the term "laboratory experiences" to refer to students' direct interactions with the natural world or with data drawn from it. More study is needed on the value of such experiences and their role in science education, the report says. But teachers, curriculum developers, and other leaders can act now to make improvements using current research that embraces four key principles of solid 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
Researchers have begun to design and study "integrated instructional units" that connect lab experiences with lectures, class discussions, and other types of science learning. In this approach, students help frame research questions, create experiments, and construct scientific arguments. Evidence so far shows promising gains in science mastery, reasoning skills, and interest in science among diverse groups of students, the report notes.
Old habits may die hard, though. Historically, lab work has been disconnected from the flow of science lessons in U.S. classrooms. This is still typical, the report says. Lab experiences are often narrow in scope and more focused on mechanical procedures than on meaning. Old-style lab work persists for several reasons. Teachers rarely receive adequate training to lead effective labs, or they have inadequate access to curricula that marry lab experiences and instruction. The way schedules, space, and other resources are organized in most high schools also may thwart educators' efforts to learn how to improve science teaching. Plus, teachers may feel too pressed for time to teach labs well if they believe they must primarily focus on covering particular topics in their state's science standards.
In an increasingly complex, high-tech society, U.S. high school graduates need a basic understanding of science and technology to lead productive lives, the report says. To improve their understanding, most science laboratory experiences must be reformed.
-- Vanee Vines
America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Committee on High School Science Laboratories: Role and Vision, Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2005, approx. 230 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09671-5, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Susan Singer, professor of biology, Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.