Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

Special Report / The Status of the Science Lab

Laboratory investigations have been part of the science curriculum in U.S. high schools for two centuries. Unfortunately, the quality of these laboratory experiences is poor for most students, according to America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, published by the National Research Council (NRC). To produce this report, an NRC-appointed committee of experts reviewed the research and held a series of public fact-finding meetings exploring the history, current status, and future of science laboratory classes in the United States. The committee's conclusion: Laboratory experiences need to change to support meaningful learning about both the scientific process and important science concepts.

Purposes of Science Laboratory Experiences

  • Enhancing mastery of subject matter;
  • Developing scientific reasoning;
  • Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work;
  • Developing practical skills;
  • Understanding the nature of science;
  • Cultivating interest in science and in learning science; and
  • Developing teamwork abilities.

Today's Laboratory Classes

No single lab experience is likely to achieve all of these goals, and the report notes that high school science classes should, and do, use a wide variety of approaches. Many laboratory classes require that students follow specified procedures to verify established scientific knowledge. Others engage students in developing questions, designing investigations, and generating explanations.
  • The average high school student takes three years of science courses before graduation and participates in one laboratory class period each week.
  • The amount of time students spend in laboratory courses varies according to ethnicity. Students in schools with high proportions of non-Asian minorities tend to spend less time in lab-related activities than do schools with lower proportions of minorities.
Why are traditional laboratory experiences still so prevalent in U.S. high schools? The report cites a number of factors working against change. Foremost is teacher preparation: Undergraduate teacher education programs rarely prepare future teachers with the pedagogical and science content knowledge they need to integrate student learning of science processes and important science content. Professional development opportunities for science teachers are limited and usually place little emphasis on laboratory instruction. School laboratory facilities and supplies are often inadequate, particularly in schools serving low-income and minority communities. Finally, rigid school schedules and state science standards that mandate teaching extensive lists of science topics in a given grade may discourage teachers from adopting more effective approaches to laboratory instruction, which often require extended time for discussion and reflection.

What Science Labs Should Look Like

  • Are designed with clear learning outcomes in mind;
  • Are thoughtfully sequenced into the flow of classroom instruction;
  • Are designed to integrate learning of science content with learning about the processes of science; and
  • Incorporate ongoing student reflection and discussion.
Because integrated science curriculums are relatively rare, the research evidence is insufficient to support detailed recommendations about specific policies or programs. The report concludes that “a serious research agenda is required to build knowledge of how various types of laboratory experiences (within the context of science education) may contribute to specific science learning outcomes.”
America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (2005) is availabnle from The National Academies Press atwww.nap.edu/catalog/11311.html.

The Nation's Report Card: Science 2005

The poor quality of typical high school laboratory experiences may be part of the reason that high school science achievement appears to have stagnated in the last decade. Results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science found that although 4th graders' scores rose from 1996 to 2005, 8th graders' scores showed no change and 12th graders' scores declined slightly.
Achievement gaps by race/ethnicity also varied among the three grade levels. The gaps between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed among 4th graders, remained unchanged among 8th graders, and widened among 12th graders.
The Nation's Report Card: Science 2005is available from the National Center for Education Statistics atwww.nationsreportcard.gov/science_2005.
Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 107029.jpg
Science the Spotlight
Go To Publication