Texas Ed: Comments on Education from Texas

June 16, 2006

The value of science labs

Filed under: Education reform, education research, High School, Homeschooling — texased @ 9:40 pm

My son just finished his first high school biology lab. It went pretty much the way I expected–a waste of time. I don’t know why homeschoolers get so wigged out about the need for labs. I don’t know why colleges consider them so important for entry. College labs aren’t anything to write home about either.

Just so that you don’t think this is just sour grapes from a liberal arts major, I went to an engineering magnet school in high school–biology, chemistry, physics, electronics, and other stuff I don’t remember. I also managed a B in my physics lab in college before I devoted myself full time to the liberal arts. Furthermore, my husband who has post-doctoral lab fellowship in the health field, agrees with me.

The problem is that you know what the results are supposed to be. In this case, my son was using various stains to identify substances with lipids, sugars, and starches. So if it turns one color, it means one thing, if it turns another, something else. He could read the lab and write up the results without ever having done it just like I did about half my labs in college. (He did do the lab but wasn’t impressed.)

Now I know that some people are hands on learners and labs help them understand and retain the material. And I also realize that if you are going to do meaningful lab-work, you will need to be proficient in lab procedures. But to me it’s like not being able to understand the battle of Gettysburg without seeing a re-enactment or appreciate impressionist art without actually trying to paint yourself.

What would make it more useful and/or interesting? Focusing on the screwups. Are there any differences in using regular versus non-fat yogurt or regular versus no sugar added apple juice? And why did the solution finally turn purple only after pouring it out into the white enamel kitchen sink. Well, maybe I don’t really want to know that one.

My point is that I think that the general high school science labs as now conducted really don’t contribute to the learning experience. I’m sure that some teachers somewhere have totally awesome labs that leave their students begging for more. But I would guess most aren’t. Of course, I’m in no position to complain since I’m the one who actually signed my son up for the class. However, I’m not going to make him do a science fair project unless he wants to.

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