Science Labs Don’t Have to Cost an Arm and a Leg

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent article in District Adminstration magazine discusses the aging science labs in schools across our nation and the cost of upgrading them all.

The article points out that science standards have been raised recently while lab facilities have been left to deteriorate. It says that the costs of fixing the existing labs run between $150 and $200 per square foot, meaning that an adequate lab space for 24 students will cost around $250,000 to upgrade.

In these days of plunging school budgets, this allocation of funds is simply not possible. When you add in the cost of including science labs in new school construction and count all of the schools around the country that are likely to require upgrades, the cost of fancy science lab facilities can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, there’s another answer. Scale back the full upgrade of the lab spaces so that only inexpensive, safe, and efficient hands-on labs remain. Safety equipment may be partially eliminated. Gas would no longer be required. Bunsen burners come from the 19th century and are really archaic today. Highly chemical resistant desktops could be replaced with less expensive alternatives.

Why can we make this adjustment? Because the primary advantages of hands-on labs are two-fold.

  1. They provide a kinesthetic learning experience, rounding out the other learning in science classes.
  2. They allow students to do experimental design and redesign, providing excellent experience in understanding the nature of science and in developing scientific reasoning skills.

Any other purpose cited for having hands-on labs either can be handled in alternate, safer, and less expensive ways or is not really necessary for high school students. The two purposes listed above are easily achieved in a facility that is no more complex or expensive than a kitchen. While such facilities are more expensive than ordinary classrooms, they fall far below the cost of a fully-equipped science lab.

M_Faraday_Lab

What do you then do to provide the science experiences that can’t be conducted in a kitchen? After all, simulations will not do. They misrepresent the nature of science and can even deliver erroneous results. The data all come from a programmer’s pencil, which cannot represent the real world and may have other flaws as well.

To many, simulations are the “new thing.” Actually, people have been using simulations for a very long time. Uranus and Neptune were discovered with the assistance of simulations. Note that these simulations were not being investigated but were a tool being used to investigate the solar system where the real data was being collected. The recent widespread availability of inexpensive computer time simply meant that simulations could be done with less expense and in less time.

Replacing science labs with simulations has become popular with some for a number of reasons, including cost, safety, and the “gee-whiz” factor of using a computer and seeing animations. None of these are valid excuses for cheating students of the opportunity to investigate the real world.

Instead, we must find newer ways to use the available technology to provide true inquiry science experiences.  Ideally, science labs should allow students to inquire, explore, and discover. Even when this goal is only partially realized, the labs should advance the goals of understanding the nature of science and of developing scientific reasoning skills. Any other use wastes valuable class time.

It’s time to harness our country’s ability to innovate and convert new ideas into great products. My personal efforts have centered on prerecorded real experiments. Others must also have ideas that can bring us better science education for less money. The future will require no less, and we can no longer afford these show-piece science labs that don’t deliver learning value in proportion to their cost.

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