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Role of Labs in High School Physics

A Position Paper of the AAPT Committee on Physics in High Schools
  August 1992
  Subcommittee on the Role of the Laboratory: Carole Escobar, Paul Hickman, Robert Morse, Betty Preece
  (Approved by the AAPT Executive Board, November 1992)

"Newton won a stunning victory for the intellect and the democratization of science, because it became possible for students to have as much authority as teachers. By knowing proper methods, a youth could conduct an experiment whose results might confound his elders."1 Newton’s program of "experimental philosophy" firmly and successfully established the central methods of physics, whereby inference from experience guides formulation of hypotheses, whose predictions are validated by experiment. Laboratory activities in high school physics provide experience with phenomena, a starting place for the systematic development of students’ ideas, and a testing ground for the predictive power of their reasoning.

Learning Goals for Laboratory Activities

Laboratory activities must be designed to engage students’ minds, so that students may acquire skill and confidence in their:

  • measurement of physical quantities with appropriate accuracy
  • recognition of factors that could affect the reliability of their measurements
  • manipulations of materials, apparatus, tools, and measuring instruments
  • clear descriptions of their observations and measurements
  • representation of information in appropriate verbal, pictorial, graphical, and mathematical terms
  • inference and reasoning from their observations
  • ability to rationally defend their conclusions and predictions
  • effective and valued participation with their peers and their teacher in a cooperative intellectual enterprise
  • articulate reporting of observations, conclusions, and predictions in formats ranging from
  • informal discussion to a formal laboratory report
  • ability to recognize those questions that can be investigated through experiment and to plan, carry out, evaluate, and report on such experiments.

Teaching Conditions for Learning from Laboratory Activities

"Theory and research suggest that meaningful learning is possible in laboratory activities if all students are provided with opportunities to manipulate equipment and materials while working cooperatively with peers in an environment in which they are free to pursue solutions to problems that interest them." 2

The following teaching conditions enable this to occur.

  • For students to acquire the manual and mental skills associated with learning physics, it is essential that they be fully engaged in laboratory activities. This requires sufficient equipment and laboratory stations for laboratory groups containing only two or three students.
  • The number of students and of laboratory stations in a classroom must be small enough for the teacher to supervise the safety of student activities and to have sufficient time to actively work with each laboratory group.
  • Schools and teachers must ensure equal access to laboratory activities under appropriate supervision for all students, with provision made for adapting activities for students with a disability.
  • Where appropriate, laboratory activities should include equipment and phenomena that relate to the students’ world, such as toys, sports equipment, tools, household items, etc.
  • The integration of laboratory activities with classroom work requires that students be able to move smoothly between their desks and the laboratory area and that there be sufficient space for equipment to remain set up. A classroom arrangement with space for desks, computers, and ample space for laboratory stations and equipment in the same room is ideal. At the high school level, it is especially desirable for the laboratory area to be integrated with the classroom.
  • Computers and modern instruments should be part of the laboratory equipment. Although excellent physics learning can take place using the simplest equipment, computers and measuring instruments incorporating modern technology can be powerful tools for learning physics concepts and developing skills of measurement, analysis, and processing information.
  • Computer simulations should not substitute for laboratory experience, but may be used to supplement and extend such experience.
  • Evaluation of student learning in physics should include assessment of skills developed in laboratory activities as well as the knowledge acquired during these activities. Test questions relating directly to laboratory work act not only to assess laboratory learning, but also communicate the importance of laboratory work to students.
  • Effective employment of laboratory activities requires that teachers have adequate and convenient storage for equipment; a workspace with tools to repair, maintain, or construct equipment; and enough planning time in their schedule to maintain, set up, and try out laboratory equipment prior to classes.
  • Safe laboratory work for students and teachers requires adequate, up-to-date safety equipment; an emphasis on safe practice in all activities; and the availability of resources and references on safety, such as the AAPT publication, Teaching Physics Safely.
  • To maintain their skills and keep abreast of new developments in physics teaching, teachers need time, money, support, and encouragement to participate in appropriate professional activities. These may include attendance at workshops and professional conferences; examining new laboratory equipment, curricula, texts and resource materials; and working and consulting with colleagues in schools and colleges and in the physics and engineering research community.

The role of the laboratory is central in high school physics courses since students must construct their own understanding of physics ideas. This knowledge cannot simply be transmitted by the teacher, but must be developed by students in interactions with nature and the teacher. Meaningful learning will occur where laboratory activities are a well-integrated part of a learning sequence. The separation of laboratory activities from lecture is artificial, and not desirable in high school physics.

  1. 1 I. Bernard Cohen, Sidney M. Edelstein Lecture, Baylor School, 17 April 1985.
  2. 2 Kenneth Tobin, Research on Science Laboratory Activities: In Pursuit of Better Questions and Answers to Improve Learning, School Science and Mathematics, 90 (5), May/June 1990, p. 414.