Could COVID-19 Change How we Teach Science in the Future: Is the Time of Laboratory Experiments Coming to an End?

Science has always been regarded as a hands on experience, where students not only learn through lecture but then are given the opportunity to experience what they have learned. Unfortunately, during these uncertain times of COVID-19, learning science has been moved online and teachers have made attempts to create virtual activities. This migration has led some administrators, teachers, and researchers to question the impact of hands on experiences in science.

Science Education Pre-Pandemic

Students’ hands on experiences are usually in the form of lab activities. Often, students listen to a lecture about a scientific topic and then conduct a lab activity related to that topic. Conventional lab activities usually contain the same set of items: 1) Protocol 2) Data collection sheet 3) Results worksheet and 4) Follow up questions. The conventional lab approach is praised by many science teachers as effective in introducing students to a wide array of topics in a short amount of time, learning technical lab skills, learning how to follow directions, and reducing the grading time for large class sizes. However, a growing body of evidence has found that conventional labs have questionable student learning outcomes and some research suggest that they have negative affects on students’ interest in learning science.

With the already growing doubt in conventional lab practices and COVID-19 forcing instructors to abandon hands on activities, some administration and teachers are beginning to question the future of the general science lab. In a recent article published by Chemical & Engineering News, some have called for the complete removal of general science labs that cater to students that are not pursuing science. While others have called for an update to more modern approaches (i.e. inquiry-based learning, context-based learning, project-based learning, course-based undergraduate research experiences, etc.).

Science Education Mid-Pandemic

What is known is that change, large systematic change, takes time. However, the real questions are how are administrators, researchers, and teacher perceiving time and the duration of this pandemic? How long can we anticipate virtual learning or alternative/social distance learning?

Depending on leaders’ perceptions of how long this pandemic will last, we may see change faster than anticipated. Under the pressure of reduced budgets and already overworked staff, general science labs may be adapted for pure necessity. Continuing the general conventional labs would obviously require funds to buy chemicals, dispose of waste, and maintain lab equipment. In addition, some schools may need to hire additional teachers to accommodate the increase in class offerings needed to reduce class size for social distancing purposes if students will return to the classroom. If students do not return to the classroom, another option could be the temporary suspension of labs, which could allow for potential reform in the future, post-COVID-19, by allowing administration to compare student learning outcomes. Lastly, schools could attempt to adopt a modern approach listed above, which could be designed to be more cost effective but sometimes require more grading time. Many modern approaches advocate for a reduced amount of labs done over the course of a term. In addition, general modern labs can be conducted with household items, with little to no chemical waste that needs to be specially disposed of. Both of these aspects can be tempting to administration that wants to maintain some sort of lab aspect.

Overall, education and science education were quickly and heavily impacted by COVID-19. With many administrators and teachers scrambling to adapt science to a virtual setting, there is no question that this has sparked many topics of debate for the future.

How do you think COVID-19 will affect science education? Let me know in the comments below.