A hallmark of science is that it generates theories and laws that must be consistent with observations. Much of the evidence from these observations is collected during laboratory investigations. A school laboratory investigation (also referred to as a lab) is defined as an experience in the laboratory, classroom, or the field that provides students with opportunities to interact directly with natural phenomena or with data collected by others using tools, materials, data collection techniques, and models (NRC 2006, p. 3). Throughout the process, students should have opportunities to design investigations, engage in scientific reasoning, manipulate equipment, record data, analyze results, and discuss their findings. These skills and knowledge, fostered by laboratory investigations, are an important part of inquiry—the process of asking questions and conducting experiments as a way to understand the natural world (NSTA 2004). While reading about science, using computer simulations, and observing teacher demonstrations may be valuable, they are not a substitute for laboratory investigations by students (NRC 2006, p. 3).
For science to be taught properly and effectively, labs must be an integral part of the science curriculum. The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) recommends that all preK–16 teachers of science provide instruction with a priority on making observations and gathering evidence, much of which students experience in the lab or the field, to help students develop a deep understanding of the science content, as well as an understanding of the nature of science, the attitudes of science, and the skills of scientific reasoning (NRC 2006, p. 127). Furthermore, NSTA is committed to ensuring that all students—including students with academic, remedial, or physical needs; gifted and talented students; and English language learners—have the opportunity to participate in laboratory investigations in a safe environment.
NSTA strongly believes that developmentally appropriate laboratory investigations are essential for students of all ages and ability levels. They should not be a rote exercise in which students are merely following directions, as though they were reading a cookbook, nor should they be a superfluous afterthought that is only tangentially related to the instructional sequence of content. Properly designed laboratory investigations should:
Inquiry-based laboratory investigations at every level should be at the core of the science program and should be woven into every lesson and concept strand. As students move through the grades, the level of complexity of laboratory investigations should increase. In addition, NSTA recommends that teachers and administrators follow these guidelines for each grade level:
Preschool and Elementary Level
Middle and High School Levels
At the college level, all students should have opportunities to experience inquiry-based science laboratory investigations as defined in the Introduction. All introductory courses should include labs as an integral part of the science curriculum. Laboratory experiences should help students learn to work independently and collaboratively, incorporate and critique the published work of others in their communications, use scientific reasoning and appropriate laboratory techniques to define and solve problems, and draw and evaluate conclusions based on quantitative evidence. Labs should correlate closely with lectures and not be separate activities. Exposure to rigorous, inquiry-based labs at the college level also is important because most teachers develop their laboratory teaching techniques based on their own college coursework laboratory experiences.
To give teachers at all levels the support they need to guide laboratory investigations as an integral part of the total curriculum, NSTA recommends:
To ensure that laboratory investigations are implemented in schools, administrative support is crucial. NSTA recommends that the school administration recognize the instructional importance, overarching goals, and essential activities of laboratory investigations and provide the following:
Assessment, a powerful tool in science education, serves both formative and summative purposes. Not only does it help show what students have learned and the nature of their reasoning, it also indicates what gaps remain in learning and what concepts must be reviewed (NSTA 2001). NSTA recommends the following steps to ensure that laboratory investigations are part of the assessment process:
—Adopted by the NSTA Board of Directors, February 2007
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National Research Council (NRC). 2006. America’s lab report: Investigations in high school science. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2006. NSTA Position Statement: Professional Development in Science Instruction.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2004. NSTA Position Statement: Scientific Inquiry.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2004. Investigating safely; A guide for high school teachers. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2001. NSTA Position Statement: Assessment.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2000. NSTA Position Statement: Safety and School Science Instruction.
Roy, K. 2006. (Lack of) Safety in Numbers? Science Scope 30(2):62–64.
West, S.S., J.F. Westerlund, N.C. Nelson, and A.L. Stephenson. 2001. Conditions that affect safety in the science classroom: Results from a statewide safety survey. Austin, TX: Texas Association of Curriculum Development.
Clough, M.P. 2002. National Science Teachers Association. Using the Laboratory to Enhance Student Learning. Learning Science and the Science of Learning, ed. R. W. Bybee, 85–96. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.