Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Experiments and Exploration are vital to science education!

This week, an article was posted about how some middle school science teachers felt that labs were messy and a waste of time in science. They stated that they could get the students to know the material better through lecture and a couple of demo's and the students just looked at labs as free time. They also stated that when they did less labs, the state test scores went up.

I'm horrified that these people are science teachers. Exploration and experimentation are vital to science and science education. Students need to learn how to explore, collect data, analyze, conclude and communicate what they found. They need to work in groups to solve problems. This is what people do in real life. They don't sit around getting lectured to.

Test scores are, unfortunately, being used to much as a measure of student learning, when in fact most of these tests are invalid and useless. I also find these teachers' comments about students treating labs as free time an indication that these teachers lack classroom management skills. I also think that the labs they are using are not well designed.

I can look up science facts online very easily. But that doesn't mean that I understand them, or can even evaluate if these "facts" are actually true. Science changes constantly as scientists and engineers explore the world and find new things and new ways of doing things. Remember these science "facts"-  the earth is flat, the earth is the center of the universe.

To succeed in any endeavor, a student needs to be able to think critically - they need to analyze and solve problems. They need to learn how to work as a team and communicate. They need to have an understanding of where science comes from and how it is explored. They need to understand that failures lead to answers also. They need a basic functional literacy in science. They can only get this through projects and labs.

These projects and labs should be hands-on, but there are also plenty of labs and investigations that can be done online, for free, and are still very educational. This is a great alternative to hands-on labs that are too expensive or possibly dangerous. Students can also use free web 2.0 sites to do projects, webquests, and more that will teach them so much more than facts.

As an Aerospace Engineer (worked for 10 years as an engineer before becoming a physics teacher) I can tell you that the only way I was successful is because I learned science and engineering through labs and projects. You can not learn to apply concepts and facts by sitting in a lecture hall. My college, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, understood this and they have a very unique educational program called the WPI Plan that is based on projects.

I'm very sad that some science teachers are focusing on facts and test scores rather than actual teaching and learning in their classrooms.

Here are two other articles by other educators who agree that this is not a good idea:



And here are some more articles I've written on this topic:

WPI Plan - A Great Educational Model for All Schools



Edutopia also agrees that their research shows that Project Based Learning, which includes labs, is very effective way to learn.

What do you think?


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