Parents who dream that their kids will prosper in careers like medicine, science, or computers should pay attention to the latest national report card on science education.
The National Research Council graded the quality of science laboratory experiences in high schools around the country. The NRC, which advises the federal government on science and technology, found that most students get a poor education in those laboratories.
Most labs, the NRC said, don't follow the bedrock principles for effective science teaching. Lab sessions, for instance, are not designed with the clear purpose of teaching specific scientific principles.
Likewise, they often forgo golden opportunities to help students discover how science works. Science is not just a mountain of facts. It is a process that involves making educated guesses (hypotheses). Lab experiments test each hypothesis. The outcome sends some hypotheses to the junk pile. It bolsters others, which endure and eventually become established fact.
The NRC cited other problems, including outdated and poorly equipped labs, and shortages of supplies that make a lab as useless as a bakery with no flour.
Schools in the United States spent an average of $3 annually per student on consumable lab supplies in 2000, the last year with good data. It sometimes leaves teachers paying for supplies with their own money.
The situation typically is worse in rural and poor inner city schools.
The NRC blamed major gaps in knowledge on exactly how lab sessions help kids learn science. Lab sessions certainly do take time. The average student in a science course spends one class period per week in a lab. Scientists and educators should do the research needed to decide how that valuable time can best be spent, as the NRC recommends.
There is no question, however, that many a scientist, engineer, and physician can trace the start of his or her career to early laboratory experiences. Those first hands-on opportunities to apply the book learning and actually "do" science have an amazing ability to hook kids on careers.
Students everywhere, not in just wealthy school districts, should get that opportunity in laboratories that are modern, well equipped and stocked, and supervised by knowledgeable teachers with clear objectives constantly in mind.