curricula and in designing the teacher professional development courses that accompany most of them. However, as in the 1960s and 1970s, only a few of these NSF-funded curricula have been widely adopted. Private publishers have also developed a multitude of new textbooks, laboratory manuals, and laboratory equipment kits in response to the national education standards and the growing national concern about scientific literacy. Nevertheless, most schools today use science curricula that have not been developed, field-tested, or refined on the basis of specific education research (see Chapter 2).
Clearly, the United States needs high school graduates with scientific literacy—both to meet the economy’s need for skilled workers and future scientists and to develop the scientific habits of mind that can help citizens in their everyday lives. Science is also important as part of a liberal high school education that conveys an important aspect of modern culture. However, the value of laboratory experiences in meeting these national goals has not been clearly established.
Researchers agree neither on the desired learning outcomes of laboratory experiences nor on whether those outcomes are attained. For example, on the basis of a 1978 review of over 80 studies, Bates concluded that there was no conclusive answer to the question, “What does the laboratory accomplish that could not be accomplished as well by less expensive and less time-consuming alternatives?” (Bates, 1978, p. 75). Some experts have suggested that the only contribution of laboratories lies in helping students develop skills in manipulating equipment and acquiring a feel for phenomena but that laboratories cannot help students understand science concepts (Woolnough, 1983; Klopfer, 1990). Others, however, argue that laboratory experiences have the potential to help students understand complex science concepts, but the potential has not been realized (Tobin, 1990; Gunstone and Champagne, 1990).
These debates in the research are reflected in practice. On one hand, 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. On the other hand, in early 2004, the California Department of Education considered draft criteria for the evaluation of science instructional materials that reflected skepticism about the value of laboratory experiences or other hands-on learning activities. The proposed criteria would have required materials to demonstrate that the state science standards could be comprehensively covered with hands-on activities composing no more than 20 to 25 percent