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.
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