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Study rips quality of high school science labs

While sleek crime-scene TV shows have turned students on to forensic science today's high school laboratories do not engage students.
/ Source: The Associated Press

While sleek crime-scene TV shows have turned students on to forensic science, an investigation of today's high school laboratories shows that reality isn't so flattering.

Most of the labs are of such poor quality that they don't follow basic principles of effective science teaching, said a report released Monday by the private National Research Council, a prominent adviser to government leaders on matters of science and engineering.

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, the report said.

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.  "It's on target," said Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association and a former high school physics teacher.  "There's a lack of clarity about why we're doing things. And we can't measure how useful labs are unless we have that clarity."

Successful lab time is critical because it bolsters students' science literacy and, more broadly, can help inspire the next wave of scientists, the report said.

The review amounts to the latest warning over the state of science in the United States. Business groups whose members have tens of millions of workers recently announced a campaign to prod the nation into improving math and science education, wary of slipping U.S. competitiveness in the world.

Criticisms of science labs are not new, but teachers say the report, coming with the imprimatur of the National Research Council, could give the matter a boost of urgency.

"For literally 150 years, laboratories have been the sacred cows of science education," said Susan Singer, chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report and professor of biology at Carleton College.  "Nobody has stopped to question what the value added is, or how we should go about using labs to improve learning. We haven't asked the right questions."

Most students take science classes during three of the four high school years, participating in labs about once a week in biology, chemistry or physics courses.

During lab time, students are supposed to be mastering subject matter, developing scientific reasoning and understanding the complexity of work involving observation, the report said. Students also should be developing teamwork abilities and cultivating an interest in science, it said.

In his high school lab in Rogers, Ark., chemistry teacher Steve Long said every activity has a clear purpose. Sometimes experiments on chemical reactions are done at the start of a lesson to hook students; sometimes they are done at the end to test a theory.

But Long said many science teachers are limited by old lab equipment, limited money, large class sizes and infrequent training on how to be better lab instructors.

"This is a problem that nobody's been willing to address. Now there's a flag out there that we can't ignore," Long said of the report.

Overall, research on high school labs is inadequate, making it difficult to draw conclusions on how to fix the problems, the report said. It recommended no specific policies, calling instead for more research and posing questions for leaders to consider.

Teachers, school boards and test writers all have responsibility to make changes, said Wheeler, the teachers association official.


Conclusions of a National Research Council report on U.S. high school science labs:

  • Researchers and educators do not agree on how to define high school science laboratories or on what their purpose is, hampering the accumulation of research on how to improve labs.
  • Labs should be designed with clear outcomes in mind and sequenced into the flow of class instruction. They should cover science content and process, and foster student discussion.
  • The quality of lab experiences is poor for most students.
  • Improving high school teachers' capacity to lead labs is essential. This would require major changes in undergraduate science education and more comprehensive support for teachers.
  • The organization of most high schools impedes them from improving lab experiences.
  • State science standards are often interpreted as requiring teachers to cover an extensive list of topics, which discourages them from devoting time on effective lab lessons.
  • State science tests are often not designed to measures skills learned during labs.