At Camden School for Girls in London (@CamdenSchools), it is a typical day in the science lab. The classroom of 30 ethnically diverse teenage girls line up to use the two classroom sinks in order to prepare for a lab experiment. Several girls get their supplies and head to the desk, attempting to find spots on the short benches that are the rooms’ only seating areas. Others fill out their lab paperwork in tight spaces wherever they can, elbow-to-elbow with colleagues who are firing up decades-old Bunsen burners on top of tripods that burn at the slightest touch.
The dilapidated science lab at Camden is no longer functional or safe for students. Last year, taking matters into their own hands, school administrators and students launched a crowdfunding campaign to build a state of the art school science lab.
Unfortunately, this is a sight that is familiar to science teachers worldwide. Around the small town of Rockland, Massachusetts, five different high schools were put on probation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in 2009 due to substandard science labs and equipment. The NEASC, which is responsible for renewing the schools’ accreditation, stressed that the problem isn’t just in New England, either. School science labs, to this day, aren’t keeping up with the times, and it’s the students who are suffering.
“We have a lot of old school buildings in the United States, and science labs feel their age more keenly than other classrooms,” says Lamoine Motz (national science facilities and safety consultant and former president of the NSTA) in a District Administration Magazine article (“School Science Labs“). Motz who also coauthored the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities) sees updating school science labs as a top priority in preparing students for successful STEM education and careers, in addition to dispelling long-held misconceptions about the function and potential of school labs.
“The real world is made up of science, and how we behave in and manage our environment—from natural resources to rain forests—is critical. So we’re trying to design labs that will invite all kids into science. The guide really tries to fix the image that science is an area where students do a lab just once in a while. A lot of people felt, ‘Science isn’t important in our curriculum, so why should we improve our lab?’ That attitude is changing.” — Lamoine Motz
Pamela Gray-Bennett (Director of NEASC) notes that the evolution of school science labs is not only a priority but was inevitable considering the changing times, “What good science instruction was 40 to 50 years ago is not the same as good science instruction now, and there were different expectations of which students were expected to take science.When all students are pushed to achieve at a higher level, they need to have access to science labs.”
Still, disrepair is just a part of the problem.
As more schools around the U.S. adopt the NGSS, schools are feeling pressure to raise the bar (and the funding) when it comes to providing authentic lab experiences. Science is now one of the success indicators on standardized tests connected with No Child Left Behind. Science labs are now being incorporated in early learning, even as young as 3rd and 5th grade. According to Harold Pratt (former president of the NSTA and President of Science Curriculum Incorporated), standard science lab science experiments in elementary schools include:
- Planting and growing seeds
- Studying animals in the classroom, such as hamsters, fish, earthworms, brine shrimp, fish, crayfish and meal worms, and observing their life cycle, diet, and behavior. Do they like to be in dark or light? Are they sensitive to smells?
- Experimenting with the properties of liquids
- Studying electricity/ This is especially popular because of the immediate feedback. “If the bulb lights you know you did something right,” Pratt says.
Show Me The Money!
This pressure to innovate quickly is forcing many districts to scramble to find funds to develop hands-on science areas that may not meet the learning standards of their more expensive full-lab counterparts.
Meanwhile, science teachers are feeling the pinch to incorporate more education technology and project-based learning into their science classrooms. Telescoping lab tables, smartboards, chemical-resistant epoxy table and floor coverings, and updating graphing software and computer equipment can cost up to $200 per square foot, according to Motz and other experts. In addition, expanding current labs to provide “sufficient work space, including flat moveable desks or tables and chairs, equipment, and access to water and electricity,” can cost another $25,000 to $60,000 per room (“The Integral Role of Laboratory Investigations on Science Instruction,” NSTA) . While this is excellent for districts who can afford it, it may be setting up other schools for failure, giving low income students fewer opportunities for STEM success.
In the discussion comments on a article by PBS News Hour (Lighting up elementary school science with ‘lab before the blab’ by Rebecca Jacobson), science teacher Regina Hitchcock explained the struggle to offer students quality lab with limited funds:
“In large districts, wealthy districts, or districts where families are concerned with learning instead of thinking of public school as free babysitting for 7 hours a day, STEM is a reality for every student. However, in my district, where schools have shut down, weeks have been shortened and teachers have been laid off due to budget constraints, our STEM classes are 100% teacher-funded. I spend, on average, $20 a week on supplies for just my two STEM classes, not including the hundreds I spend during the summer when I see things on sale or what I have to spend to allow my regular science classes to have any hands-on learning. The reality is that STEM is an initiative that creates amazing learning opportunities in schools that can afford it, but increases the gap between haves and have-nots even that much greater.” — Regina Hitchcock
Creative Solutions, Innovative Science Labs
In order to feasibly meet these disparate needs, many schools are getting creative when it comes to creating science lab spaces (and real-world lab experiences) for their students. Some programs, like the collaboration between the University of Arizona and local high schools’ Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) program, are bringing college students into working and professional labs so that they have access to high-tech lab experiences (University of Arizona,”KEYS Program Puts High School Science Students in Working Labs,” YouTube).
Schools are seeing success with creative collaborations with other educational institutions seeing to expand their outreach and engage the community in new ways. The partnership between the Michael C. Carlos Museum and Emory’s Center for Science Education (CSE) in Atlanta, Georgia is a good example. The experimental program developed hands-on, project-based activities for science labs for high school students, based on art conservation projects. Teachers were asked to create STEM to STEAM, project-based labs. This program brought high school students into the science labs of the art conservation department at the museum for a unique science lab experience. The results exceeded everyone’s expectations and showed how collaboration can lead to innovation (“Carlos Museum uses art conservation to create high school science labs“).
At the end of the world, our very own professional development specialist, teacher and researcher Jean Pennycook, engages classrooms around the world in a virtual lab live from Antarctica with penguin participation and all. Students perform real-life experiments using data sets submitted to them from Pennycook and then Skype with her about the results and her research (“From the South Pole to Classrooms Around the World – Jean Pennycook’s Penguin Science Inspires All“)
You’ve heard of Snakes on a Plane, but have you ever heard of lab on a bus? Schools, like LaFrancis Hardiman Elementary School in Wyandanch, New York, are benefiting from innovative solutions like The BioBus (a 1974 GMC transit bus converted into a mobile science lab that travels to elementary, middle-schools and high schools to offer students labs on how to use state-of-the-art microscopes to observe microorganisms (“BioBus mobile classroom, lab drives into Westchester,” The Journal News). Over 120,000 New York area students have been on the BioBus.
BioBus found, Ben Dubin-Thaler, saw a need to offer alternative, unique school science labs that would engage students and be convenient for them:
“We spend anywhere from a day to six days at a school, depending on the number of students and what kind of program they do. If the students are bilingual or if they want a specific lesson on marine biology, we will make sure to tailor our staff. I had this model in my mind, you know, instead of bringing the kids to the classroom, you go to the kids.” — Ben Dubin-Thaler
Not to be forgotten, technology is playing a large role in transforming school science labs and we can only expect the role of technology in bringing real-world science to classrooms to increase (and quickly, at that). An army of startups have launched in the past 3 years with sole purpose of creating highly engaging, state-of-the-art science labs to propel students into the 21st century. Here are a few notable ones:
1. LABSTER: This award-winning virtual science lab for high schools and colleges has all the benefits of inquiry-based science exploration with 3D animations visualizing life science down to the molecular level. Students and classrooms from the remotest parts of the world can access it as long as they have an internet connection.
2. Sigma Lab: The Sigma Lab at Charlottesville High School in Virginia is a paragon of wrap-around STEM technology. The lab incorporates CAD software, a computer lab, 3D printers and interactive LCD “writing walls” to simulate a design and manufacturing environment.
3. ZSpace: The ZSpace lab gives students a futuristic, hands-on experience through the use of a video screen, 3D glasses, and a set of interactive markers. The cost for 12 stations is high – $50,000-70,000 for hardware, software, professional development and support services for teachers – but the unique lab experience is totally immersive, giving students an inside perspective on processes like genetic mutation, weather, and atomic interaction.
4. Ardusat: In this interactive science lab, students are able to create potential experiments in the classroom with the help of Cubesats – small satellites that are equipped with gyroscopes, thermometers, accelerators, UV lights, etc. Once students have designed and tested their concept on the ground, the code is shipped to the Ardusat satellite for further inquiry.
5. Virtual Laboratory Table: The Virtual Lab Table uses a patented pad and element “tokens” to allow students the opportunity of having a more hands-on experience with chemistry. A part of the World Design Capital Project, this low-cost alternative to a full-size chemistry lab shows students real time reactions as they combine and analyze chemical elements and compounds via the computer.
As we push forward to a future where students graduate STEM-literate, and segue into careers where they will be saddled with solving the worlds biggest problems, the urgency to renovate and innovate school science labs will only increase. How will administrators, teachers, and parents meet this challenge?
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