Berkeley High School May Eliminate Science Labs

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left
Just put the title of this article into your favorite search engine. The Berkeley High Governance Council (BHGC) has just voted to stop providing science labs to its students so that the roughly $400,000 cost can be redirected into programs to support struggling students.

Berkeley High School (BHS) has a number of features that most schools do not. It’s located in a community that includes lots of University professors and dot-com entrepreneurs and employees as well as plenty of African-American and Latino households.

BHS gives its science labs before and after normal school hours. Five teachers supervise these lab sessions. The reason for the unusual laboratory time scheduling appears to be overcrowding because lab space has been taken during normal school hours for non-lab instructional activities.

Blogs seem to be going wild over this proposed change with charges of racisim flying around like dust on a windy day. The achievement gap at BHS is well beyond national norms. These labs are being labeled as “white” courses. However, one AP teacher claims that her four AP Environmental Science course contain one-third minority students. No figures have been given for AP Physics, AP Biology, or AP Chemistry. The College Board does not label AP Environmental Science as a “laboratory science” course.

Detail of the school building, with the words Berkeley HighWhat’s to be done? Is the threat to close down the science labs just a threat, a ploy to get more money for remedial education? Does the BGHC really believe that science labs should go? The science department certainly does not. “The majority of the science department believes that this major policy decision affecting the entire student body, the faculty, and the community has been made without any notification, without a hearing,” according to Mardi Sicular-Mertens, the senior member of Berkeley High School’s science department.

This news brings a number of issues together at once and makes sorting them out difficult. It also brings focus on some important issues in education.

Regarding the achievement gap, BHS has an unusually large number of high-achieving students, a fact that skews the achievement gap. Low-achieving students at BHS may do better than in the average California school, although one report puts them below the national average. While that statistic does not remove the necessity for helping low-achieving students, it does make the BHGC action seem rather precipitate.

The necessity for holding special lab sessions in which students typically perform 19th-century experiments in 19th-century ways may be crumbling in the 21st century. We all should be asking ourselves what future we’re preparing students for in these lab sessions. Realize that most science laboratory experiences are “poor” according to the National Research Council. Pipetting technique hardly qualifies as a necessity in today’s job market.

Schools have the means to provide valid lab experiences today that weren’t available before. Instead of removing labs for many students, they should be providing them for all students. Provide appropriate challenges to every student, and make those challenges real, not make-work. This issue goes far beyond science instruction. We face the problem that science just happens to cost more than other academic subjects. History, for example, escapes this dilemma because history courses don’t have labs. In fact, of all non-science school activities, only sports seems to have high-cost settings and major equipment costs.

Schools have the means to provide valid lab experiences today that weren’t available before. Instead of removing labs for many students, they should be providing them for all students.

All educators must rethink our educational system. We must face the fact that a large fraction of students entering school each year are unprepared to learn at the pace required. Finding ways to challenge every student to reach an optimal level of learning must be our goal. Some will begin behind, but many can catch up if challenged appropriately.

Science labs may be just a small piece of this puzzle, but they’re an important one. In these labs, if done properly, students will learn scientific thinking, an important tool for everyday life. They’ll come to understand the nature of science and so be better prepared to make important decisions involving science and technology, stuff that can be as mundane as selecting a laundry detergent. And they’ll have experience with empirical data, an experience that models the complex and ambiguous nature of life in our society today.

When taught well, science (and history too) can challenge students to improve reading and writing abilities as well as critical thinking. Science also helps with math skills. Investigating their world brings engagement to students. Engagement can, in the hands of good teachers, lead to motivation to learn communication skills and math. Thus, the science (and history) courses become the remediation courses for all but the most challenged of students.

Our current recession and global competition combined with the ferment of online education and charter schools have placed large burdens on our society. Technology, as usual, may be our downfall or our savior. We have no perfect solution. Let’s hope that BHS and others make informed and successful compromises that will ensure our future remains bright.

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