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.


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.

Live Radio Captioning for the Deaf

claude80By Claude Almansi
Staff Writer

Thanks to:

  • Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss television for the explanations she gave me by phone on live captioning through re-speaking.
  • Neal Stein, of Harris Corporation (, for the authorization to publish on YouTube the video excerpt shown below, and for his explanations on the US live radio captioning project.

Why Caption Radio?

Making radio accessible for deaf and hard of hearing persons is not commonly perceived as a priority. For instance, the new version of the Swiss law and ordinance on Radio and Television that came into force in 2007 does add several dispositions about accessibility for people with sight and hearing disabilities but does not mention captioning radio. See art. 7 [1] of the law and art. 7 [2] and 8 [3] of the ordinance (in French). According to most non-deaf people’s “common sense,” deaf persons don’t use radio – just as many non-blind people still believe that blind people can’t use computers.

Yet deaf persons are interested in accessing radio content through captioning, as Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of NVRC [4], explains in this video:

The video is from the January 8, 2008, I-CART introductory press conference at CES 2008. The full video can be downloaded from Transcript of the above excerpt:

I’m one of 31 million people in the United States who are deaf or hard of hearing. A number that continues to grow. NPR Labs and its partners are on the verge of making many of my dreams come true. Beyond having that really crucial emergency information, captioned radio could also open up a world I’ve never had, because I lost my hearing before my seventh birthday.

When I am stuck in Washington’s legendary Beltway gridlock, I could check the traffic report and find out why, what my best route would be. I could check the sports scores and follow the games for all my favorite teams. I could know why my husband is always laughing so uproariously when he listens to “Car Talk.” And I could annoy him by singing along badly to the lyrics of his favorite songs.

I can’t wait. Thank you.

NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election

The work by NPR Labs and its partners, mentioned by Cheryl Heppner in this January 2008 conference, led to the broadcasting of live captioned debates on NPR during the US election campaign a few months later. The assessment by deaf and hard of hearing people of this experiment was extremely positive. According to the press release “Deaf and Hard of Hearing Vote Yes on New Radio Technology During NPR’s Live Captioned Broadcast of Presidential Election” (Nov. 13, 2008) [5]:

  • 95% were happy with the level of captioning accuracy, a crucial aspect for readability and comprehension
  • 77% said they would be interested in purchasing a captioned radio display unit when it becomes available
  • 86% indicated they would be interested in purchasing a “dual-view” screen display for a car (which would enable a deaf passenger to see the captioned radio text while the driver listens to the radio).

How Are Radio Captions Transmitted?

A digital radio signal can be divided to transmit audio and text, and the text can be read on the radio display. In fact, text messages are already being sent micro4_serviceon car radio displays through Radio Data System (RDS). For instance, this is how the Swiss traffic information service Inforoutes updated drivers in real time – or almost – about the state of traffic jams due to work in the Glion tunnel in 2004. (See “Service,” in French, on page 4, in the May 2004 newsletter of Les Radios Francophones Publiques [6].)

The radio devices used in the experience conducted by NPR Labs and its partners that Cheryl Heppner mentions have a bigger display. For the exact technical explanation of how the captions work, see the presentations section of

Stenocaptioning vs. Respeaking

The NPR experiment mentioned above used “stenocaptioned,” i.e., they were written with a stenotype [7] whose output gets translated into captions in normal English by computer software. Live stenocaptioning – whether for news broadcasts or for in-presence events in specially equipped venues – seems to be the preferred solution in countries such as the US and Italy that have a tradition of stenotyping court proceedings or parliamentary debates.

In most other European countries, according to Ms. Sylvia Monnat, director of captioning at Télévision Suisse Romande (French-speaking Swiss TV –, broadcasters tend to prefer “respeaking,” which works with speech-to-text technology: the software gets trained to recognize the voice of respeakers, and then converts what they repeat into captions.

Ms. Monnat further explained that, on the one hand, the advantages of respeaking involves training. In fact, countries without a stenotyping tradition do not offer courses for it, whereas existing interpretation schools can arrange respeaking courses since it is a normal exercise in the training of conference interpreters. Moreover, respeaking is easier to learn than stenotyping.

On the other hand, it takes time to, first, train the speech-to-text software to recognize the respeakers’ voices and, second, to add words not present in its basic thesaurus for each respeaker’s voice. Moreover, enough respeakers have to be trained so that one whose voice is recognized by the software will be available when needed. Whereas once a new word has been added to the thesaurus of the stenocaptioning software, it can be used by any stenocaptioner.


The fast evolution of technology makes it difficult to foresee the issues of live captioning, even in the near future. Radio and television are merging into “multimedia broadcasting.” And, in turn, the line between broadcasting and the internet is gradually fading (see the HDTV offer by internet providers). Speech-to-text technology will probably continue to improve. Mutimedia devices are also evolving rapidly.

However, the response of the deaf and hard of hearing people who participated in the NPR Live captioning experiment seems to allow one safe surmise: live radio captioning is here to stay, whatever the means it will use tomorrow.


Further information on live captioning can be found in the online version of the “Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Real-time Intralingual Subtitling” held in Forlì, Italy, on Nov. 17, 2006 [8].

This and other online resources mentioned here have been tagged “captioning” in Diigo and can therefore be found, together with resources added by other Diigo users, in

Making a Case for Online Science Labs

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
10 November 2008

In my last article, I spoke of states blocking progress in online science education. California and New York proscribe the use of virtual labs for their high school diplomas. Rather than complain about this situation, the online community must find ways to work with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the New York State Board of Regents (Regents) to amend their rules.

There’s much at stake here — too much to waste our efforts attempting somehow to make simulations okay as labs. Realize that if these states modify their rules, then we open up a great set of opportunities for online education.

Instead of beginning by opposing UCOP and Regents, begin where they are and work with them. I read in the UCOP position a statement that no virtual labs that they had seen were good enough to substitute for hands-on labs. Take that as our starting point.

First, make contact with these groups. Then, show them the possibility of using online labs as a part of the instructional process. What’s the best way to make that demonstration?

Because the UCOP and Regents have not seen any virtual labs that they feel are suitable, and they have seen plenty of simulations (data, objects, and phenomena generated by equations and algorithms), do not begin by showing them what they’ve already rejected. Instead, show them something completely different.

keller10nov08Remember that the decision makers are taking their guidance from scientists. I’m a scientist (chemistry) and have some ideas about how these important advisors view science lab experience. Understand that the traditional education community is very protective of hands-on labs. Any solution must include these to some extent. The exact extent should be a subject of negotiation. The College Board, for example, mandates 34 hours of hands-on time for AP Chemistry.

Use America’s Lab Report for guidance and as a possible neutral virtual meeting ground. Showing adherence to all aspects of the report will, I believe, demonstrate the required possibility.

Having established communication and demonstrated the potential for online science to succeed, engage in a dialog regarding any deficiencies perceived by the UCOP and/or Regents in the various presented alternatives. Agree that one or more, if amended, can substitute for some fraction of the total hands-on requirement. Some approach may even succeed without modification.

Overcoming any such deficiencies and presenting our case again will complete the process and open the door for online science instruction throughout the United States.

Our initial presentation should include as many innovative approaches to virtual labs as we can muster and should not include simulations as lab substitutes for the reasons stated above.

I’m aware of three possibilities for presentation. None use simulations. All use the methods of science.

1. Large online scientific database investigation. Prof. Susan Singer, the lead author for America’s Lab Report, uses this approach in her own classes.

2. Remote, real-time robotic experimentation. Prof. Kemi Jona, one of the authors of the NACOL document about online science (together with John Adsit), is working with the MIT iLab people to supply these labs to students.

3. Prerecorded real experiments embedded in highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The Smart Science® system is the only known example of this approach. (Disclaimer: I’m a creator of this system.) Apex Learning and Johns Hopkins University’s CTY are just two organizations that use these integrated instructional lab units.

I’d be happy to hear of other approaches that are not simulations and to work with anyone who’d like to see a change in the UCOP and Regents standards for lab experience. I’d especially like to talk to anyone who has contacts with the UCOP or Regents. The sooner we start in earnest, the sooner we’ll succeed.