In Praise of Hands-On Lab Science

Integrating hands-on lab science is a typical challenge for homeschoolers. Some of the companies providing homeschool instruction have kits with the equipment and materials needed for a lab. Personally, I have bought several excellent science lab books, and hunted around for the equipment and materials myself. We’ve made many a trip to San Jose Scientific for beakers and slides, kits and chemicals, electrodes and pipettes. The cost of a lab is rarely as expensive as I fear it’ll be (but then, I also often opt out of labs which require expensive equipment.) And quite often, the shop’s proprietor has informed us that a certain chemical — often one identified as volatile or dangerous in our books — can be easily and cheaply found at our local drug or garden supply store, albeit packaged as a commercial product. It makes us feel very subversive as we slink into CVS to buy a package of chemical hand-warmers and a disposable camera, both of which will be not be put to their intended use.

I was surprised, then, to find out many science labs are now not done in a laboratory any more, but rather online. It saves a lot of money on equipment and materials, and as fiscally-challenged high schools bring it in, it’s also more acceptable to homeschoolers. These labs are great, and Neil, either for fun or to supplement his lessons, has spent hours with Phun, and the games Contraptions and Roller Coaster Tycoon 1, 2, 3 and 4. But I can’t but feel that something is missing when you’re only watching an experiment online. For one thing, you can’t make mistakes. I can no longer enumerate how many things have caught fire in my kitchen which weren’t supposed to catch on fire. Once we managed to accidentally set sugar on fire, an impressive feat I haven’t reproduced. Secondly, explosions are a lot more fun in real life than they ever are on screen. When Neil and I sublimated liquid nitrogen inside a plastic pipette, it burst with a big bang. An online lab wouldn’t do something that simple — or that exciting.

These memorable activities are the things that make new scientists. You’ve got to expect mistakes, and to be able to examine the mistakes to find out what you did wrong (or perhaps what you did right to get a different outcome.) You learn why it is very, very important to keep your lab equipment clean, preferably sterile, as well as the importance of having a fire extinguisher on hand. It’s also a good idea to wear gloves and goggles, not to wear your favorite shirt, and to have a sink with running water nearby. You can’t learn that online. And it’s not as much fun watching the exact same video as everyone else compared to figuring out why your sister’s rock crystals formed a different pattern than your own, or having her rescue your lab worms so she could read them a bedtime story.

Neil and I have also learned to note the state of chemistry buildings on different campuses. They always seem like a horde of mad scientists are purposefully orchestrating reactions and explosions there all day long. When Neil was taking classes on the San Jose State campus, we noted that there was often a terrible smell coming from the direction of the chemistry building. Some students blamed the smell on the nearby trees, but we know better. We also speculated that it has a removable roof which can raise and lower itself when an experiment gets too, um, intense. We more recently noticed that the chemistry building at Stanford has been fenced off, as if it was a hazmat site. Also, several windows on three different floors are blown out. Someone’s surely making science there!

So, while it may save me a lot of money, I haven’t been comfortable classifying any science class we’ve done which didn’t include a series of a physical hands-on experiments as a real “lab science” on Neil’s transcript. We’re studying molecular biology now, and we have a microscope, lab slides, and staining material. The first time I used methylene blue, I stained my fingers better than the cells we were supposed to look at, and showed up at an event looking like I had smurf hands. Next time, I’ll have Neil try doing the staining. Eventually, we’ll get it right, but there’s no video that could teach us how to do that as well as real experience.

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