Does science learning require labs?

Hands-on science — that is lab experiments — are supposed to be the best way to engage students and get them to think scientifically, writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. But she wonders if labs are essential to learning what scientists already know.

Elementary students aren’t “little scientists” but “novices who need a strong foundation in content before their lab experiences can be meaningful and memorable,” she writes.

For older students, labs can be slow, tedious and confusing, Beals writes. “Many students end up hating the lab component of courses they otherwise find interesting.”

One of her friend’s favorite science course was devoted to the psycho-neurology of the flatworm. The professor would present a topic, extend it to the flatworm and ask students how they’d set up an experiment to test their hypotheses. Once students designed the experiment, the professor would say, “That exact experiment just happens to have been done, and here’s what they found.” The class never performed an experiment.

Beals’ commenters think “guided observation” is more useful than labs for young students.

Auntie Ann, who studied physics and engineering, recommends science activities for K-8 students:

— Look at various things under a microscope, sometimes with dyes. Cells, both plant & animal. Crystals, salt, sugar, etc. Pond water with small organisms. Every-day items: hair, cloth, paper, pencil lead, wood, etc.

— Do acid/base experiments.

— Basic battery & current experiments. Completing/breaking a circuit.

— Gravity experiments: dropping, pendulum, etc.

— Weather observation; during one day, during seasons.

— Star charting to see change during year.

— Observations of the phases of the moon.

— Usually get a shot at least one partial solar eclipse every few years. For that one I love to walk under a tree; the little gaps between the leaves act as pin-holes, and the ground becomes covered with the crescent of the sun.

— Grow a plant from a seed.

— Some cooking science: yeast, baking soda, caramelization, etc.

— Then just measuring things using different tools: mass, length, volume, time.

In most Mississippi schools, students don’t do much hands-on science, according to a Hechinger Report story.  Elementary teachers average 2.4 hours per week on science instruction — a hair over the national average –with much of the focus on teaching vocabulary.

When I was in elementary school, we spent 2.4 hours a year on science till fifth grade, when we learned about the duckbilled platypus. I did grow a lima bean in kindergarten and learn to distinguish an oak leaf from a maple leaf in first, second, third and fourth grade.

I’d guess Mississippi’s real problem is that students in the state do poorly in all subjects.

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  1. I’m not finding fault with that list, but I think some of the items on it – the more formal experiments – are probably better done in MS – where better lab facilities are also likely. I’d rather see ES kids (especially, not exclusively) see/do simple illustrative demos of material they have covered in class (circuits etc). I think they would learn far more from a good demo, with careful explanations, than they’d learn on their own. I’ve seen kids go through hands-on science museums and most have no idea what they’re doing. Of course, things like growing sunflowers, as an illustration of heliotropism, or beans (in light and in dark) to illustrate photosynthesis, are classic ES activities. The same goes for measuring things, moon phases, weather, parts of plants, simple animal classification etc.

  2. Linda Seebach says:

    When I had science labs in high school (never mind elementary/middle) we were assigned to pairs, and I was the mathy one who reasoned back from what we were supposed to see and my lab partner was the one who then proceeded to see it. I don’t think that was what we were supposed to be learning.