next section focuses on the amount of time science students spend in laboratory activities as part of their science courses. We then assess current laboratory experiences in light of the range of experiences presented in Chapter 1 and the goals and instructional design principles presented in Chapter 3. The chapter concludes that most laboratory experiences today are “typical” laboratory experiences, isolated from the flow of science instruction. Because these typical laboratory experiences do not follow the design principles we have outlined, they are unlikely to help students attain the science learning goals identified in Chapter 3:

  • 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.


Laboratory experiences have features that make them unlike other forms of science instruction. These unique features make it a challenge to structure laboratory experiences so that they neither overwhelm students with complexity on one hand nor rigidly specify all of the questions, procedures, and materials on the other. Over the course of a student’s high school science career, the appropriate balance between complexity and specificity may vary.

Students’ direct interactions with the material world are inherently ambiguous, complex, and messy. Other modes of science instruction, such as lectures, readings, and homework problems, present students with simplified representations of natural phenomena that select and communicate certain variables and attributes (Millar, 2004). Although this simplification is essential for effective learning, it can create distance between classroom learning and real-world applications of science. Students may find that a problem-solving approach that worked well in the classroom fails badly when applied to observation or manipulation of the material world.

Natural phenomena contain much more information than any representation (Millar, 2004), and this wealth of information and complexity can prevent students and teachers from focusing on and attaining the goals of laboratories we have outlined. For example, when discussing a pendulum in class, a physics teacher may ignore without discussion a host of variables that may affect its operation. However, when a student starts doing a simple experiment with a pendulum, these variables suddenly become relevant.

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