10 August 2005

What's Cooking in the Lab

We're still in the hunt for a math/science teacher at my school. I was told that there was an applicant who has the right endorsements---but did so without ever taking a lab science class. It sounds a little hard to believe that this person paid for a degree (it's a second career teacher) that didn't involve any experience with doing science. But programs can offer what they like and the state is only looking for a requisite number of hours on the transcript. There is no requirement about the amount of lab science a teacher must take.

What about students? Currently, students in Washington state are required to have two credits of science in order to graduate---only one of those credits must be in a "lab science" as defined by the local school board. Rather pathetic, don't you think?

Meanwhile, a new national study is questioning the quality of lab science in U.S. high schools. "The typical lab is an isolated add-on that lacks clear goals, does not engage students in discussion and fails to illustrate how science methods lead to knowledge...Also contributing to the problem: teachers who aren't prepared to run labs, state exams that don't measure lab skills, wide disparities in the quality of equipment and a simple lack of consensus over what 'laboratory' means in the school environment. Even the way class time and space are organized in high schools may be limiting progress, the study found."

I am fortunate to work in a building with good quality lab facilities. The same is not true across the school district (or elsewhere). But do we use them to help our students "master subject matter, develop scientific reasoning, understand the complexity of work involving observation, and develop teamwork abilities and cultivate an interest in science"? I believe that's what is in our heads when we plan and do a lab with kids---but I don't know if that always comes across as things are happening. I know that I don't always take the time for a rich discussion following the lab.

I am wondering if any research has been done into what makes a high-quality lab experience. I mean, what are the particular strategies a teacher should use? (Anyone out there looking for a dissertation topic?) As I have been looking around recently, it seems like a lot of people are admitting that we don't know a lot about what makes for quality teaching. Education schools have been so rooted in theory that they haven't done a lot to research best practices and put them in the hands of those in the trenches. This may be part of the reason so many teachers leave the profession in short order: they can talk at length about Plato's idea of what it means to be an educated person and the purpose of education, but they don't know how to help Johnny be an active learner.

I will certainly be watching for more information in this area. As district Science Goddess, I feel strongly that I put the best possible tools into teachers' hands. They have an overwhelming job to do---with no time to research this on their own. And it makes no sense for each of them to find things out individually and create the same wheel over and over. More on that idea tomorrow.

Update: My Sweetie sent a link for this article at Edutopia concerning "Appropriate Assessments for Reinvigorating Science Education." Have a peek, too, if you're interested.


Anonymous said...

Currently, students in Washington state are required to have two credits of science in order to graduate---only one of those credits must be in a "lab science" as defined by the local school board. Rather pathetic, don't you think?

Yes, it is pathetic, but pretty common I imagine. I'm curious. What courses can they take to fulfill those two hours?

When I was in high school,the science courses were pretty tightly structured. Everyone had to take biology. I think I remember that everyone had to take chemistry, but I may be mistaken. Physics was optional. Then there were second year courses for all of the first year courses, Biology II, Chemistry II and Physics II. All of them were "lab" classes, with real labs. We had to take "health", but I don't think it counted as a science class. There was a summer-school course in biology/ecology/health that I took, but it wasn't very deeply scientific (although we did get to do a cool project where we drove around the county and did biological and chemical testing of groundwater). The only bad thing was the rigid structure of the programs. You HAD to take biology first, for example, then chemistry.

If there were any other science options, I've forgotten them.

I had great teachers in biology and chemistry, but the physics teacher was a bonehead. He was a re-purposed math teacher who was really interested in the math part of physics, but had little understanding of any of the rest. The smarter kids in Physics II taught him more often than he taught us.

The Science Goddess said...

Right now, every science class we offer counts for a "lab credit." There are some states which legislate how much time must be spent in the lab (usually 20% of class time). Washington is not one of them---but even if it was, there is still nobody monitoring whether or not you do labs with kids.

Perhaps "quality" is better than "quantity" in this instance. But we need to figure out what goes into the best quality lab and then teach teachers to do that.