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.

Science Labs and Accessibility

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In all of the time I have been working on making real science labs available over the Internet, I’ve spent little time on accessibility. Of course, I made the obligatory efforts with ALT and TITLE tags to images and made sure that font sizes can be set by the user. The question of who would be using the new technology to reap the benefits of doing real science labs was not foremost in my mind until I read an article in the Montana Kaimin entitled “Disability Services Undermanned and Overworked” written by Kimball Bennion.

Here’s the excerpt that grabbed my attention:

Justyn Field, a senior in print journalism, said he dropped a science class he was taking in the 2008 spring semester because he wasn’t able to get to the class’s science lab in the Health Sciences Building.

Field was born with VACTRL association, a birth defect that limits his mobility and also inflicts other internal problems. Field is able to walk a little, but moves mostly with a wheelchair.

Field said he tried to keep the class while doing an online lab that the department put together for him, but it wasn’t comparable to working in the actual lab.

“How do you do an online lab?” Field said. He also had to pay an extra fee for taking the class online.

“It was absolutely atrocious,” he said.

This small story highlights two significant messages. Online technology holds out great hope for access to learning opportunities denied due to disabilities, and it hasn’t fully delivered on this hope.

Consider the issues surrounding a person in a wheelchair taking a chemistry lab. The aisles where students work back-to-back on their experiments are probably too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair. The countertops are too short for a seated person to reach. Some disabilities affect fine motor coordination and make working with dangerous chemicals, well, dangerous. Safety equipment disabledsuch as eyewash fountains are too high to be useful to a seated person. The lab benches don’t usually have knee space underneath and so prevent a wheelchair user from getting close enough to the bench to do the work even if it weren’t so high. As very much a tyro at understanding disability issues in schools, I am sure that I’ve only begun a list that experts can readily expand. I’m making the point that just getting a wheelchair inside the door of a chemistry lab may not be sufficient.

A great online science lab experience could make a world of difference for Justyn Field and many others. The University of Montana made an effort to provide online labs for him. The article doesn’t say what the subject was, and I suspect that it wasn’t chemistry. Still, the same concepts apply, although not so severely, to many other subjects. Mr. Field ended up taking an astronomy class that had access to the lab facilities.

Our schools and disabled students should have excellent online science labs, not the “absolutely atrocious” ones that Mr. Field was subjected to. I have a personal stake in this discussion because I have worked on one solution for the last ten years. We should have great online lab experiences ready for the Justyn Fields of the world. They would also help immensely in cases where sick students must stay at home for extended periods, for juvenile detention facilities that must provide education to their wards, for very small schools in poor rural areas, for alternative education schools with students who have social problems, and for many others.

This all may seem to be a somewhat minor point to many, but it’s not so minor to the very large number of students affected by the lack of access to science labs. They’re being denied the education they deserve.

Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
7 November 2008

[Editor’s note: This article was originally submitted as a comment to John Adsit’s November 6 I-Blog article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes,” on 11.6.08.]

I completely agree with the last portion of what John [Adsit says in “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes“]. My own blogging on the subject is at

I also mostly agree with the rest of his comments.

1. Typical lab experiences are poor. However, many science teachers, using the same labs, provide great lab experiences. Online science courses must do as well.

2. John refers to an “‘integrated’ lab program” in America’s Lab Report. [The entire report is available online at no cost.] Actually, the report refers to “integrated instructional units” more than twenty times. It never uses the phrase “integrated lab program” or even “integrated lab.” It’s not the lab program that they wish to be integrated but the instructional unit containing the lab.

keller013. The question of exactly how online science courses will meet the goals is left open. That’s partly good because new technologies cannot always be anticipated. However, the range of options should be restricted a little. Here, America’s Lab Report provides an excellent guideline. Here it is.

“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.”

As long as your online science labs fill this definition, you can go forward and test it against the lab goals and the integration goals.

4. Absolutely, old school thinking is blocking excellent innovation in science, especially in the lab area. The reason for this blockage is not hard to find. In addition, the blockage comes in the form of restricted means rather than ends. The blockers (e.g., UCOP) say you cannot use online labs in any form rather than specifying results that must be achieved. America’s Lab Report took the opposite approach.

The reason for the blockage clearly comes from a statement on one UC web page that no virtual lab THAT THEY HAD SEEN could substitute for hands-on labs. Yet, they steadfastly refuse to look at new technologies in virtual labs.

Here’s the problem. A plethora of virtual labs have appeared, and they’re all SIMULATED. That is, they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students. This approach is anathema to most scientists. The attempts to make simulations into science labs has so turned off these scientists that now they won’t even consider ANY virtual labs.

alrYet, many people continue to attempt to create virtual labs from simulations. Instead, they should be looking elsewhere. For example, one of the authors of the NACOL report, Kemi Jona, has been working on an alternate approach: remote real-time robotic labs. They’re virtual, online, and real. They violate the rules of the UCOP, but they meet the America’s Lab Report definition and goals.

That such exemplary work is banned by California and New York is a travesty. With ever-declining budgets and schools in crisis, any valid approach should be supported.

The approach should be as good or better than the best traditional labs. The standard cannot be the “typical” labs that are so poor. They’re a “straw man” and should not be part of the debate.

I hope that someone can get the attention of the UCOP and have them look into some of the excellent alternatives to supervised traditional labs. If they end up looking at simulations, they’ll just be turned off again, and we’ll have to suffer many more years of banned virtual labs. We must present them with real innovations that don’t depend on simulated activities but use real data from the real world with highly-interactive collection of personal data by students.