The Real Story on Online Science Labs

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

John Adsit has written very well (“No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs. Traditional Science Classes,” 10.22.12) about some of the issues raised by the Colorado Department of Higher Education study (Epper) and has expressed some excellent insights into this field. In some ways, I wouldn’t go quite as far, and, in others, I’ll dig more deeply.

While it’s mostly true that a university cannot meet these standards in large classes, it does not have to be so. It’s because most professors are dedicated to research and not to teaching that such situations abound. I was such a professor with 350 students in a freshman chemistry course with labs. I met with my 22 teaching assistants weekly and visited lab sessions constantly during the course. It left me little research time but helped to build a good quality course. (Today, I’d make a much better one, but I was new to teaching then.)

In community colleges, there’s no excuse for not meeting the goals of America’s Lab Report (ALR). It’s not a publish-or-perish environment, and the class size is smaller.

John has listed the ALR goals in his remarks, and I’ll comment on them specifically. I see no excuse for not meeting the second set of four goals that addresses integration of science labs with the overall course. These are overarching goals for any lab course and would be easy to meet for anyone who cares to make the effort.

The first set of goals focuses more closely on the labs themselves. These are nice goals, but are not all equal when it comes to designing great lab experiences. I’ll take them out of order to put them into the proper context.

3. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

This is so important that ALR singles it out as the one goal that can be achieved in no other way than through a science lab. In this context, it’s important to note the part of the report that John left out, the definition of a science lab:

Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.

Note well that the data must always come from the “material world.” That statement completely rules out simulations that use equations and algorithms to create the data.

Listing those seven ALR goals without the definition is like teaching someone to ride a bicycle without a bicycle. Until you have settled exactly to what the goals apply, you might as well not list them at all.

The entire point of this third goal relates to empirical work. Unless you’re actually taking data from the material world, doing real experiments instead of simulations, you’re not dealing with empirical data. To make certain that we all agree, here’s a definition of “empirical” from the Macmillan Dictionary: “Based on real experience or scientific experiments rather than on theory.” Simulations are based on theory.

2. Developing scientific reasoning [skills].

While you can do this in other ways, collecting real data and making the effort to understand and explain them really forces students to think scientifically. They often don’t like the experience because they’re not used to thinking, but will learn to love it once their unused brain cells become stronger.

This goal is very important because it’s the one thing that, if the course is done well, students certainly will take away from their class experience. Furthermore, it’s at the crux of Carl Sagan’s argument in The Demon-Haunted World, in the chapter on the “Baloney Detection Kit.” Sagan says that scientists develop this kit as a normal part of their training and experience in doing science and that this “kit” will serve every citizen well. Advertisers and politicians work hard to fool people, but those with a well tuned baloney detection kit are not fooled.

5. Understanding the nature of science.

It’s possible but difficult to help students understand the nature of science without labs. For example, students could read and discuss excellent scientist biographies. With proper guidance, they may begin to appreciate the nature of science. However, it’s much, much better to understand science by doing science. Then, you are much more likely to internalize your understanding.

Today’s citizens face science-based dilemmas more often than in the past, and this trend is likely to continue. It may be global climate change, energy independence, genetically modified organisms, or a panoply of other controversial issues that can be hard to understand and easy to demagogue. How often have you heard that evolution is “just a theory”? If you understand the nature of science, then you know that this statement is utter balderdash. A theory is the highest pinnacle that an idea can achieve in science. You might as well tell me that some rock is just a diamond.

The nature of science is not intuitive and requires time and good learning opportunities to appreciate well. The science lab should be a place where students develop that understanding.

4. Developing practical skills.

Most people will immediately think that practical skills in science mean microscopes and burets. However, that’s just one of many practical skills that ALR includes, and it’s the one place where I disagree with their goals. Unless your future lies in a science lab, you are wasting time learning these particular skills. However, the practical skill of displaying data clearly in graphical form is one that is useful. Other practical skills include taking measurements and making observations.

1. Enhancing mastery of subject matter.

We can all agree that labs may improve understanding of the course subject matter. That should happen as a matter of course in courses that meet the four course integration goals. Designing a lab for that specific purpose would potentially put the preceding goals I’ve listed at risk and makes little sense.

6. Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science.

Some lab experiences may achieve this goal. Others may not do a great job at it. Much depends on the individual and the rest of the course. As a scientist, I’d like this goal to be met, but I also realize that meeting the first three goals I’ve listed is so much more important that I’ll not ask lab designers to pay particular attention to it. Whenever possible, without compromising the other goals, you should make your labs interesting and engaging.

7. Developing teamwork skills.

Teamwork is hardly the rationale for doing science labs. It’s nice to foster teamwork skills for societal reasons that have nothing at all to do with science. By all means add this goal to your labs where it makes sense. However, realize that students learn from pondering by themselves as well as from discussing in groups. They should have opportunities for both.

Because labs take time, cost money, and occupy expensive space, they should especially focus on meeting goals that cannot be met readily in other ways. John does not mention this, but ALR suggests that labs need not achieve all or even most of these goals. I disagree. The special three I’ve singled out (3, 2, and 5) should be met by every lab, or that lab should be removed from the curriculum, in my opinion. The rest should be served well by the lab if at all possible, at least in part, although I’d put teamwork at the bottom of the list.

John summarizes by suggesting that the online format makes achieving the seven lab goals and the four curriculum goals easier. For some goals, he’s right. However, for the three critical lab goals, he’s just plain wrong. Simulations do not even meet the definition of a lab, let alone those three goals. They certainly do not meet goal number three regarding empirical work. Most people think of simulated labs when they consider the online format for labs. Others look to lab kits, a topic I’ll reserve for another time. Is John thinking of simulated labs when he makes that summarizing statement? I’ll let him answer.

For a science course to work well online and meet all of the parts of ALR, including the definition of a science lab, it must fulfill a few simple criteria and then look to the ALR goals.

  1. The experiments must be real, not simulated.
  2. Students must take their own data point by point.
  3. Students must not have been told beforehand what results to expect.
  4. Students have to confront ambiguous data in some instances.
  5. Data errors must come from a variety of sources.

It’s not necessary that every experiment be physically present and immediate. After all, the Mars rovers represent excellent science that is neither. For learning, however, students should have some opportunities to do physically hands-on, immediately present experiments even if they’re just simple “kitchen” lab experiments.

Finally, simulations need not be banned from science courses. Just because they’re not science labs does not mean that they’re not great learning tools. Like every tool, they should be used appropriately. Were I building a science course, I’d probably use simulations in some parts. If I’m just building the lab portion, in close conjunction with the rest of the course, I’d avoid them entirely for lower level students. For more sophisticated students, they could represent an idealized model against which students can compare their real data.

4 Responses

  1. I would just like to point out that my article did not mention anything about the nature of the labs used in online courses. I never mentioned simulations. It is hard for me to understand how I could be “just plain wrong” about something I never said.

  2. My apologies. I’m so used to everyone, except me, making online and simulations synonymous that I leapt to a conclusion not based in the written word.

    There has been one exception to this conflation, and that has been remote robotic labs. But that’s a topic for another time.

  3. You are not the wrong one… it is the people who are giving educators the business. What I mean is opinion without teeth and resources. I also forget that I work in the Supercomputing learning mode and we take online simulations, visualization, modeling for granted. So sorry!

  4. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education John Adsit has written very well (“No Satisfaction in Finding on Online vs.  […]

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