Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Embracing the Messiness of Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Embracing the Messiness of Science

Article excerpt

Laboratory investigations have long been the hallmark of science education. High school science programs in the United States have included a laboratory component for over a century. Ask students what they like best about science class, what makes the class different, and the likely response will be "the labs."

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For science teachers, designing and implementing successful laboratory investigations can be challenging. There are safety concerns, as careful readers of last month's issue of The Science Teacher (TST) will well appreciate. Lab materials must be ordered, safely stored, and disposed of properly, and equipment must be maintained. In many schools, laboratory facilities, equipment, and storage spaces are inadequate. Scheduling can be difficult as we attempt to align laboratory work with course content. Class management in the laboratory creates challenges, especially in classes that often are too large for the available facility space. And labs are just plain messy.

For good reasons, then, we all look for straightforward, easy-to-manage lab activities that verify a scientific principle, preferably within an hour's time. Labs that produce clear and unambiguous results in a short timeframe are appealing, but at what cost? Science itself is a messy process, filled with ambiguous results and inconclusive data. As William McComas observes in the lead article of this month's issue of TST (p. 24), scientists rarely conduct investigations that can be completed in an hour or so, where a predetermined answer is achieved simply by following directions. When laboratory activities are designed merely to verify well-accepted laws or principles, we risk giving students a dry and inaccurate view of the nature of the scientific enterprise.

The danger of this view of science is great. According to a recent Gallup poll, only about one-third of the American public accepts the theory of evolution (Newport 2004). Educated in science classrooms, where the typical laboratory activity "proved" a "law" in one simple experiment, many Americans seem tempted to ask, "Where is the simple, one-hour experiment that 'proves' evolution?" When students are exposed only to verification lab activities, how can they be prepared to appreciate the 150 years of investigation and collected evidence that make the theory of evolution so powerful and important? …

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