“Most people in this country lack the basic understanding of science that they need to make informed decisions about the many scientific issues affecting their lives” (Singer, Hilton, and Schwiengruber 2005a, p. ES-1). This statement from the National Research Council’s (NRC) America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science is a disturbing—but true—picture of science instruction in the United States. The report outlines seven conclusions, five of which I list here (Singer, Hilton, and Schwiengruber 2005a, pp. ES 1–7):
- Researchers and educators do not agree on how to define high school science laboratories or their purposes...Gaps in the research and in capturing the knowledge of expert science teachers make it difficult to reach precise conclusions on the best approaches to laboratory teaching and learning.
- Four principles of instructional design can help laboratory experiences achieve their intended learning goals if: (1) they are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, (2) they are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction, (3) they are designed to integrate learning of science content with learning about the processes of science, and (4) they incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion.
- The quality of current laboratory experiences is poor for most students.
- Improving high school science teachers’ capacity to lead laboratory experiences effectively is critical to advancing the educational goals of these experiences. This would require major changes in undergraduate science education.
- The organization and structure of most high schools impedes teachers’ and administrators’ ongoing learning about science instruction and ability to implement quality laboratory experiences.
Most states require labs for science classes, but science teachers struggle to define what constitutes a “lab.” Do computer simulations, model construction, graphing on paper or with software, a field trip, and student analysis of a video experiment, all count as labs? Most teachers agree that labs are important in science education, but are all labs equal? In their Commentary in the October 2005 issue of The Science Teacher, the NRC report editors concluded, “These typical labs are no more effective than other forms of science instruction in helping students master subject matter…” The editors further stated, “‘integrated instructional units’ that sequence lab experiences with other teaching and learning activities…appear to be more effective” (Singer, Hilton, and Schweingruber 2005b, p. 10).
Science teachers struggle with inadequate lab facilities, science equipment, and supply budgets for science instruction. I have witnessed pre-World War II science labs with inadequate electrical capacity and worn-out furniture and plumbing, pitiful budgets for equipment and supplies where teachers personally purchase needed science materials, and schools where teachers valiantly struggle to educate 35–45 students per class period in labs that were designed for an average of 24 students! Is it any wonder that U.S. students lack basic understandings of science?
The inadequacy of students’ science understanding is, also, a result of the inadequacies of science teachers. We tend to teach as we were taught. How many current teachers used inquiry lab activities in their college science courses? Do school districts encourage or provide professional development in effective laboratory strategies? Few science teachers are trained in proper integration of laboratory activities with content. As the NRC report editors concluded, we must become better at developing meaningful and effective instructional units that integrate laboratory experiences.
The NRC report should challenge science teachers, administrators, parents, colleges, states, and the national government to discuss, research, and reflect on the inadequate laboratory experience, which may contribute to the lack of science comprehension by U.S. students. Let us use this troubling NRC report as a springboard for improvement in science instruction.
Steven Long (email@example.com) is chair of the NSTA High School Committee and a science teacher at Rogers High School in Rogers, Arkansas.
Singer, S.R., M.L. Hilton, and H.A. Schweingruber, eds. 2005a. America’s lab report: Investigations in high school science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. www.nap.edu/books/0309096715/html.
Singer, S., M. Hilton, and H. Schweingruber. 2005b. Needing a new approach to science labs. The Science Teacher 72(7): 10.