30 September 2009

Accept No Substitutions

When I was in the classroom, lab days always had some extra baggage in the form of what to do about absent students. Most materials were not things that could or should be sent home as make-up work...many, especially in the realm of biology, did not keep well. A trail of students, each making up the lab separately was a drain on resources and time. I can't claim that I ever developed a solution I was entirely happy with. There's just nothing like the real thing, baby.

It looks like the College Board might agree with that observation. From Education Week's report on Simulated vs. Hands-on Lab Experiments:

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board...

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice...
I suppose that one could reasonably argue that simulations are not student-driven inquiry experiences---they're cookbooky. But then, so are the Dirty Dozen of AP Bio (the 12 labs required by the College Board). What is the role of simulations in the k-12 science classroom, then? What kind of experience is "good enough" to be called a lab? Are we equating seat time with learning---again? Are there attributes of physically manipulating glassware, chemicals, etc. that form the only pathway to conceptual understanding? Should we accept no substitutes?

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