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What’s in a Lab Credit?

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My son is three, and we just had a teacher conference with his teacher. Strange for a preschool, perhaps, but I appreciate hearing what his strengths and weaknesses are. Since they have one, I asked what they had been doing recently in their science curriculum, and she said that it’s hard to work in science with all of the writing and numbers practice. While I disagree with her bias (and, probably, she with mine), I think it’s a real wasted opportunity to not encourage curiosity for a bunch of three-year-olds. (They’ve also made the science updates a lot more prominent since I asked.)

I’m not an elementary school teacher, but the (little) science I remember doing was doing science. Playing with circuits, crushing stuff, watching bugs and caterpillars, and pouring liquids together. Then in middle school, it was still mostly lab-based: dissections (not my favorite), pinning and labeling insects, making a scale model of the universe, Rube Goldberg contraptions, a sludge lab. In high school, there were a lot of notes to take, worksheets to fill out, and some more labs. I strangely don’t remember the labs nearly as well as when I was younger. Labs suddenly had particular aims in mind, and heaven help your grade if you missed what it was supposed to mean to you, rather than the lab making an impression on the student.

And we wonder why high school kids aren’t curious about science anymore. So when is the curiosity supposed to be turned off in favor of merely hearing about science? And why are the labs that count on transcripts not the ones that count in a person’s head?

It’s that time of year when some Seniors start to get nervous about the numbers of credits they have versus the number they need to graduate. I haven’t done extensive research on grad requirements, but from what I’ve seen, students have to take 2-3 credits in science, and 1-2 of them have to be lab-based (more, if they’re college-bound). I don’t have a problem with requiring a certain number of credits to graduate. I’m a little mystified, however, about the distinction between science credits and lab science credits.

I know there’s a few courses that can’t actually have labs because of certain limitations, like not having equipment for an organic chemistry lab, or few resources for a hands-on anatomy/physiology course. But take freshman science, often designated as “Physical Science” or “General Science”. It doesn’t usually count as a lab credit, only as a science credit. I’ve never understood this. What is going on in those classes, if not labs? The kids in those classes are supposed to be learning lab techniques and how-to-do-science. Are they sitting in place and hearing about science rather than doing? I stuffed as many labs as I could into my freshman science course (the last thing I wanted was 36 bored freshmen in a single room). And they didn’t get lab credit for my course. I know teachers who don’t do labs because they take too long or the students might screw up and get the wrong answer. Kids also get answers wrong on worksheets, so we should stop assigning worksheets, right? Maybe I’m more mystified about science teachers who don’t actually conduct laboratory courses. And part of my frustration lies in not knowing how to tune my own chemistry classes into meaningful labs (hence, wanting to go to a modeling instruction).

So I’m wondering what’s a lab credit? My state requires 12 labs per year for lab courses (but still no lab-credit-love for general science). And why do biology, chemistry, and physics automatically get the designation? I’m not advocating course audits, but maybe there needs to be something else, some bigger expectation of kids (and teachers and coursework) in high school.

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