Ad Hoc General Education Committee

Will Lab Sciences Go the Way of the Dinosaur at CCSU?

Written By: Robert Wolff - Dec• 12•11

[Posted for Kristine Larsen (Department of Physics and Earth Sciences),]

I certainly hope not! Here are two statements more eloquent than any I can draft concerning the importance of lab experiences:

1. “At the college level, all students should have opportunities to experience inquiry-based science laboratory investigations as defined in the Introduction. All introductory courses should include labs as an integral part of the science curriculum. Laboratory experiences should help students learn to work independently and collaboratively, incorporate and critique the published work of others in their communications, use scientific reasoning and appropriate laboratory techniques to define and solve problems, and draw and evaluate conclusions based on quantitative evidence. Labs should correlate closely with lectures and not be separate activities. Exposure to rigorous, inquiry-based labs at the college level also is important because most teachers develop their laboratory teaching techniques based on their own college coursework laboratory experiences.”

National Science Teachers Association (


In association with other professional scientific groups and organizations, the Virginia Academy of Science strongly supports the laboratory experience as an integral part of science education at all levels. Science is a study of natural phenomena and requires a laboratory component which permits and encourages discovery and creativity. Science faculty welcome electronic technology as a potentially effective tool to expand and to enhance instruction. However, it can neither duplicate nor replace learning experiences afforded to students through hands-on lab and field activities. These hands-on laboratory and field experiences:

  • engage students in open-ended investigative processes, using scientific problem solving
  • provide application of information students have heard and seen in lecture, thereby reinforcing and clarifying scientific principles and concept
  •  involve multiple senses in three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional learning experiences important for greater retention of concepts and for accommodation of different leaning style
  •  provide opportunities to engage in collaborative work and to model scientific attitudes and behavior
  • develop mastery of techniques and skills needed for potential science, engineering, and technology majors
  • ensure science course transferability to four-year schools as well as to graduate and professional schools within and outside of Virginia

In summary, the knowledge gained from science courses with a strong laboratory component enables students to understand in more practical and concrete ways their own physical makeup, the functioning of the natural world around them, environmental issues, etc. It is only by maintaining hands-on lab experiences that the brightest and most promising potential science majors will be stimulated and not turned off by lecture only approaches to science. These lab courses may offer many students their only opportunity to experience a science laboratory environment. These same students as potential voters, parents, teachers, legislators, developers, and land use planners benefit from a well-rounded educational experience, including laboratory experience, in making sound decisions for the future of Virginia.”

Virginia Academy of Science Council (

We should take this opportunity to examine how we conduct labs in gen ed courses and align them with best practices. For example, see the following:

“Science labs can be among the richest experiences students have at the university. It is one of the few opportunities students will have to practice science much in the way professionals do. Often, though, labs are presented as mere recipes in which students follow precise instructions to arrive at a conclusion whose importance is not clear. In order for labs to be effective, students need to understand not only how to do the experiment, but why the experiment is worth doing, and what purpose it serves for better understanding a concept, relationship, or process.”

Indiana University  (

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The American populace is already alarmingly science illiterate. Good labs teach critical thinking, group work, and mathematical skills as well as scientific concepts and scientific methodology. Let’s not water down the science curriculum even further. People who don’t want to teach gen ed labs shouldn’t be forced to teach them, but neither should they make it difficult for the rest of us to do so. Some of us actually use lab science courses to recruit majors. Wouldn’t you rather take an astronomy course that allows you to use a telescope to observe, measure, and therefore have a deeper understanding of how we know what we know about the universe, or a passive lecture where the closest you ever get to seeing the real universe is illustrations of Hubble Space telescope pictures?

Your mileage my vary (but I certainly know which I’d rather teach!)


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One Comment

  1. I would not be upset if the lab science requirement was taken out of the general education program.

    Do I think lab sciences are important? Yes. Do I think they are vital in order to make a well-rounded student capable of critical thinking? Yes. Is there plenty of evidence that proves study of the sciences are helpful? Yes.

    But…. more importantly…

    Do I trust programs to include general-ed level lab science courses into their curriculum to meet the learning outcomes of their majors? Yes. Do I think that students have the right to maneuver through their college experience and shun the sciences? Sure, I do. Do I think there are people out there who lead successful and fulfilling lives even though they took one or two lab science classes and barely scrapped through them because they learned similar skills like critical thinking in different subjects more meaningful to them? Yes, because I married one. The scientific method and critical thinking aren’t restricted to a laboratory… I say let those who want to wear their goggles in order to learn critical thinking wear goggles.. and those who don’t.. don’t wear goggles. Its a choice they can make… and a choice they can live with. I may not understand the choice since I love and understand the benefits of science; but I don’t think a student that takes an intro chem class and gets a C or D is any more literate than a student who takes an intro psychology class.

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