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.

A Review of ‘The Opportunity Equation’

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In 2009, a commission formed jointly by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Studies released a report titled “The Opportunity Equation.”  This report, in the strongest terms, called for improving mathematics and science education in the United States. Furthermore, it set out a series of recommendations on how to achieve this improvement.

In the executive summary, the report states:

The nation’s capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability of American workers to thrive in the global economy depend on a broad foundation of math and science learning, as do our hopes for preserving a vibrant democracy and the promise of social mobility for young people that lie at the heart of the American dream.

The report immediately suggests that three very important societal goals depend critically on our ability to educate our young people successfully in mathematics and science. If we do not do so we may lose

  1. our competitiveness in a global economy,
  2. our democratic way of life, and
  3. hope for a better life for our children.

These are very serious statements. However, the question remains: If we concentrate much of our resources on the goal of improving mathematics and science education, will other educational goals suffer?

When the No Child Left Behind act was passed by Congress, it focused specifically on basic mathematics and English skills. With all of the mandatory testing required, curricula were revamped to spend more time on these subjects. Necessarily, less time was spent on social sciences, science, and the arts. In my opinion, that was a poor decision. It ignored, without any rationale, the importance of motivation for students being taught rudiments. It also diverted resources. For example, I visited one school whose computer labs were given entirely over to programs that drilled students on these basics and so were unavailable for science teachers or others with valid reason to use this resource.

Text image: The Opportunity Equation - Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy

In response to my earlier question about other educational goals suffering if we concentrate our resources on improving mathematics and science education, my answer is no. I believe that a balance can be achieved if we view schooling differently. The commission came to a similar conclusion:

For the United States, the “opportunity equation” means transforming American education so that our schools provide a high-quality mathematics and science education to every student. The Commission believes that change is necessary in classrooms, schools and school districts, and higher education. The world has shifted dramatically — and an equally dramatic shift is needed in educational expectations and the design of schooling.

The report goes on to suggest more specific changes. Here’s where many of my colleagues and those in the education community at large may dispute the commission:

Mobilize the nation for excellence and equity in mathematics and science education. Place mathematics and science at the center of education innovation, improvement, and accountability.

Yes, there’s a problem, but is it really that grave?  Note that the numbers of postdoctoral students in science and engineering include well over half with temporary visas, according to the National Science Foundation’s report on enrollments in 2007. Our own schools aren’t producing graduates interested in continuing their schooling to its logical conclusion in science and engineering. I was once a postdoctoral fellow and can appreciate the sacrifices these people must make to complete their education and be ready to take their places among the top ranks of science researchers in the world. They certainly will make more money elsewhere. For example, I was working in industry when I made the decision to move back to academia, and I had to take a 50% salary cut!

There are more statistics that carry with them all of the built-in problems of statistics. Mark Twain suggested the problem when he said that there were lies, damn lies, and statistics. Different people focus on different aspects of statistical reports. I have looked over some of these reports and see a growing problem. Anecdotally, a local paper publishes two columns regularly. One is called “Mind Games” and contains math and logic problems. The other is the astrology column. The former runs on alternate weeks. The latter runs every week. The former delivers useful mental calisthenics. The latter provides pablum to a deceived public. It’s truly sad to see superstition rank higher than reality.

Once you agree that our schools really do have to improve the math and science product they create, then you start looking for a solution. Can you really put math and science at the center of your school’s educational curriculum as the commission suggests?

I hold a slightly different view. Of course, I’m biased by being a scientist.

A Curriculum Based on Social Science and Science

I would like to see a curriculum that uses social science and science as its root. Both engage students in real-world ideas and challenges. Both are important to a functioning democracy and to a nation that can compete in today’s world. Both provide opportunities for learning the more “basic” skills of mathematics and communication. Both can engage students in artistic expression. Science certainly can engage students in learning mathematics, not for itself, but for the benefits it can bring to studying the world. By the way, I’m not suggesting that we eliminate multiplication tables. Arithmetic must be learned the hard way. But beyond the elements of arithmetic, the motivation for learning any more mathematics should come from real-world oriented goals.

I’m very inexpert in the social science area and so will say little. I imagine that great art can illuminate the social sciences very well. I know that communication skills are very important to social sciences as they are to science as well.

How would you rearrange a school like the one I envision?  You might extend the time spent on science and social science and have the teachers who previously taught mathematics and English in unique classes join the other teachers appropriately to support the learning of the other subjects. It would be a variant of team teaching.

Whatever the approach, we as a nation must agree to devote substantial resources to preserving those three crucial things that will allow us to continue to exist essentially as we have: competitiveness, democracy, and a better future for our children. The alternative may well be decay into just another country.