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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science 7 Laboratory Experiences for the 21st Century Science education, of which laboratory experiences are a fundamental and unique part, is a critical component of education for the 21st century. Most policy makers and educators agree that scientific literacy is essential for all citizens in an increasingly technological world. At the same time, science education is essential to meeting the nation’s needs for scientists and engineers in an era of growing global competition in research, development, and technological innovation. Yet in the United States, many people lack even a basic understanding of science. Because most Americans complete high school and the curriculum is designed to prepare young people both for employment and further study, high school science education has the potential to advance the dual goals of broad scientific literacy and preparation of the future technical and scientific workforce. In this chapter we summarize the major findings and conclusions of the report and consider their implications for policy, practice, and research. We consider the role each conclusion plays in advancing a new vision of laboratory experiences in science education. THE ROLE OF LABORATORY EXPERIENCES IN SCIENCE EDUCATION The distinguishing feature of science is that explanations are required to correlate with observed data from nature. Scientists gather these data through direct observation, manipulation, and experimentation with natural phenomena. Because the subject matter of science is the material world, science
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science education involves seeing, handling, and manipulating real objects and materials and teaching science involves acts of showing as well as of telling. In the committee’s view, science education includes learning about the methods and processes of scientific research (science process) and the knowledge derived through this process (science content). Science process centers on direct interactions with the natural world aimed at explaining natural phenomena. Science education would not be about science if it did not include opportunities for students to learn about both the process and content of science. Laboratory experiences, in the committee’s definition, can potentially provide one such opportunity. Most states and school districts continue to invest in laboratory facilities and equipment, many undergraduate institutions require completion of laboratory courses to qualify for admission, and some states require completion of science laboratory courses as a condition of high school graduation. These requirements exist without careful description of what is meant by a laboratory course. And, while some state and district policies appear to support laboratory experiences, others may hinder the design and implementation of effective laboratory learning experiences. The committee has identified science standards and assessments as two key policy drivers that shape the role of laboratory experiences in science education. State science standards that are interpreted as encouraging the teaching of extensive lists of science topics in a given grade may discourage teachers from spending the time needed for effective laboratory learning. Current large-scale assessments are not designed to accurately measure student attainment of the goals of laboratory experiences. Developing and implementing improved assessments to encourage effective laboratory teaching would require large investments of funds. LABORATORY EXPERIENCES AND STUDENT LEARNING The committee reviewed a wide body of research related to laboratory experiences and student learning. This review revealed a diffuse evidence base consisting of studies that vary widely in quality. The coherence of the body of evidence is complicated by a lack of clarity in the goals for laboratory experiences. As a first step to understanding the potential of laboratory experiences to advance science education, the committee defined laboratory experiences and identified seven goals. Definition: Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science. Goals of Laboratory Experiences Laboratory experiences can help to enhance national scientific literacy and prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers by supporting students in attaining several educational goals: Enhancing mastery of subject matter. Developing scientific reasoning. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Developing practical skills. Understanding of the nature of science. Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science. Developing teamwork abilities. Evidence on the Effectiveness of Laboratory Experiences In reviewing the evidence on the effectiveness of laboratory experiences in helping students to attain these goals, the committee examined two somewhat distinct bodies of research. Each is designed to address a different question about the effectiveness of laboratory experiences. Historically, laboratory experiences have been disconnected from the flow of science classes. Because this approach remains common today, we refer to these isolated interactions with natural phenomena as “typical” laboratory experiences. Research on typical laboratory experiences examines whether these encounters with the natural world, by themselves, contribute to students’ science learning. Over the past 10 years, investigators have begun to develop a second body of studies that draw on principles of learning derived from cognitive psychology. This research has focused on development of instructional sequences that include laboratory experiences along with lectures, reading, and discussion. We refer to these instructional sequences including laboratory experiences as “integrated instructional units.” The earlier body of research, on typical laboratory experiences and the emerging research on integrated instructional units, yield different findings about the effectiveness of laboratory experiences in advancing the goals identified by the committee (see Table 7-1). Research on typical laboratory experiences is methodologically weak and fragmented, making it difficult to draw precise conclusions. The weight of the evidence from research focused on the goals of developing scientific reasoning and enhancing student interest in science showed slight improvements in both after students participated in typical laboratory experiences. Research focused on the goal of
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science Table 7-1 Attainment of Educational Goals in Different Types of Laboratory Experiences Goal Typical Laboratory Experiences Integrated Instructional Units Enhancing mastery of subject matter No better or worse than other modes of instruction Increased mastery compared to other modes of instruction Developing scientific reasoning Aids development of some aspects Aids development of more sophisticated aspects Understanding complexity and ambiguity of empirical work Inadequate evidence Inadequate evidence Developing practical skills Inadequate evidence Inadequate evidence Understanding of the nature of science Little improvement Some improvement when explicitly targeted at this goal Cultivating interest in science Some evidence of increased interest Evidence of increased interest Developing teamwork skills Inadequate evidence Inadequate evidence student mastery of subject matter indicates that typical laboratory experiences are no more or less effective than other forms of science instruction (such as reading, lectures, or discussion). A major limitation of the research on integrated instructional units is that most of the units have been used in small numbers of science classrooms. Only a few studies have addressed the challenge of implementing—and studying the effectiveness of—integrated instructional units on a wide scale. The studies conducted to date indicate that the laboratory experiences and other forms of instruction included in these units show greater effectiveness for these same three goals (compared with students who received more traditional forms of science instruction): improving students’ mastery of subject matter, developing scientific reasoning, and cultivating interest in science and science learning. Integrated instructional units also appear to be effective in helping diverse groups of students progress toward these three learning goals. Due to a lack of available studies, the committee was unable to draw conclusions about the extent to which either typical laboratory ex-
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science periences or integrated instructional units might advance the other goals identified at the beginning of this chapter—enhancing understanding of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, acquiring practical skills, and developing teamwork skills. The committee considers the evidence emerging from research on integrated instructional units sufficient to conclude: Four principles of instructional design can help laboratory experiences achieve their intended learning goals if (1) they are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind, (2) they are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom science instruction, (3) they are designed to integrate learning of science content with learning about the processes of science, and (4) they incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion. These principles, combined with the seven goals, offer first steps toward a more coherent vision of laboratory experiences. They provide a framework for curriculum developers, administrators, and teachers to use in reconsidering how laboratory experiences can be successfully incorporated into science courses. The emerging research on the uses of technology to support laboratory experiences reveals a promising avenue for both research and practice, particularly for its potential to allow students access to otherwise inaccessible phenomena. CURRENT HIGH SCHOOL LABORATORY EXPERIENCES Analysis of current classroom practice shows that high school students’ current laboratory experiences rarely follow the design principles we have identified. We conclude: The quality of current laboratory experiences is poor for most students. Furthermore, access to any type of laboratory experience is unevenly distributed. Students in schools with higher concentrations of non-Asian minorities spend less time in laboratory instruction than students in schools with fewer non-Asian minorities. Students in more advanced science classes spend more time in laboratory instruction than students enrolled in regular classes. At the same time, most students, regardless of race or level of science class, participate in a limited range of laboratory experiences that are not based on the design principles derived from recent research in science learning.
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science READINESS OF TEACHERS AND SCHOOLS TO PROVIDE LABORATORY EXPERIENCES One important factor contributing to the weakness of current laboratory experiences is a lack of preparation and ongoing support for high school science teachers. Effective high school laboratory teaching requires both deep conceptual and procedural knowledge of science disciplines and also deep knowledge of student learning and teaching strategies appropriate to those disciplines. However, current undergraduate education of future science teachers does not provide these types of knowledge. Undergraduate science departments rarely provide future science teachers with laboratory experiences that are designed on the basis of the learning principles identified in the research. Once on the job, science teachers have few opportunities to improve their laboratory teaching. Most professional development opportunities for current science teachers are limited in quality, availability, and scope and place little emphasis on improving laboratory instruction. In addition, few high school teachers have access to science curricula that are designed on the basis of research, and some teachers struggle with inadequate laboratory space and supplies. Improving high school science teachers’ capacity to lead laboratory experiences effectively is critical to advancing the educational goals of these experiences. This would require major changes in undergraduate science education, including provision of a range of effective laboratory experiences for future teachers and developing more comprehensive systems of support for teachers. The organization and structure of most high schools impedes teachers’ and administrators’ ongoing learning about science instruction and implementing quality laboratory experiences. The design principles and goals offer a framework for reevaluating undergraduate science education for teachers, just as they can advance laboratory experiences in elementary and secondary schools settings. In addition, as state policy makers and district and school administrators begin to give more explicit and coherent attention to laboratory experiences, they can also supply the tools and support teachers need to provide high-quality laboratory experiences. For example, professional development might be designed with an explicit focus on laboratory experiences and tied to teachers’ work in classrooms. Teachers could be given more time to plan and share ideas, and the time-intensive aspects of providing high-quality laboratory instruction could be recognized.
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science Finally, safety issues emerged as an important but neglected aspect of laboratory experiences. Greater attention to safety issues in research, policy, and practice is warranted. TOWARD THE FUTURE: LABORATORY EXPERIENCES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY Moving toward improvement of laboratory experiences for the 21st century is constrained by weaknesses in definitions and research. Historically, researchers studying laboratory experiences have not agreed on a precise definition of “laboratory.” Even today, educators, policy makers, and researchers have differing views of the role and goals of high school laboratory experiences. This fragmentation in research, policy, and practice has slowed research, development, and demonstration of improved laboratory experiences. Researchers and educators do not agree on how to define high school science laboratories or on their purposes, hampering the accumulation of evidence that might guide improvement in laboratory education. Gaps in the research and in capturing the knowledge of expert science teachers make it difficult to reach precise conclusions on the best approaches to laboratory teaching and learning. The need to more carefully define the role and goals of high school science laboratories and measure progress toward attainment of those goals is given greater urgency in view of the multiple pressures placed on schools and districts to increase the performance of a diverse student body. The challenge of meeting the needs of students in cost-effective ways places great pressure on schools to reevaluate the apparently more expensive features of education, such as high school science laboratories. Although more recent research has illuminated the design principles to guide improvement in laboratory teaching and learning, studies of the possibilities and challenges associated with scaling up promising approaches are in the early stages. In addition, mechanisms for sharing the results of the research that is available—both within the research community and with the larger education community—are so weak that progress toward more effective laboratory learning experiences is impeded. The committee envisions a future in which the role and value of high school science laboratory experiences are more completely understood. The state of the research knowledge base on laboratory experience is dismal but, even so, suggests that the laboratory experiences of most high school students are equally dismal. Improvements in current laboratory experiences
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science can be made today using emerging knowledge. Documented disparities to access should be eliminated now. Systematic accumulation of rigorous, relevant research results and best practices from the field will clarify the specific contributions of laboratory experiences to science education. Such a knowledge base must be integrated with an infrastructure that supports the dissemination and use of this knowledge to achieve coherent policy and practice. The committee suggests that partnerships may be most successful in addressing the weaknesses in current laboratory experiences and other problems we have outlined. Specifically, teachers, scientists, cognitive psychologists, education researchers and school systems, working together, are best able to design and test innovative approaches to laboratory experiences. Partnerships like these are well suited to the challenge of answering the many remaining questions about laboratory teaching and learning: Assessment of student learning in laboratory experiences—What are the specific learning outcomes of laboratory experiences and what are the best methods for measuring these outcomes, both in the classroom and in large-scale assessments? Effective teaching and learning in laboratory experiences—What forms of laboratory experiences are most effective for advancing the desired learning outcomes of laboratory experiences? What kinds of curriculum can support teachers and students in progress toward these learning outcomes? Diverse populations of learners—What are the teaching and learning processes by which laboratory experiences contribute to particular learning outcomes for diverse learners and different populations of students? School organization for effective laboratory teaching—What organizational arrangements (state and district policy, funding priorities and allocation of resources, professional development, textbooks, emerging technologies, and school and district leadership) support high-quality laboratory experiences most efficiently and effectively? What are the most effective ways to bring those organizational arrangements to scale? Continuing learning about laboratory experiences—How can teachers and administrators learn to design and implement effective instructional sequences that integrate laboratory experiences for diverse students? What types of professional development are most effective to help administrators and teachers achieve this goal? How should laboratory professional development be sequenced within a teacher’s career (from preservice to expert teacher)?
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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science Improving the quality of laboratory experiences available to U.S. high school students in order to advance the educational goals identified in this report will require focused and sustained attention. By applying principles of instructional design derived from ongoing research, science educators can begin to more effectively integrate laboratory experiences into the science curriculum. The definition, goals, design principles, and findings of this report offer an organizing framework to begin the difficult work of designing laboratory experiences for the 21st century.
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