NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rediscovering discovery: Investing in public school science labs

Jacob Hartog, MPA

Here’s a Jeopardy clue for IBM's supercomputer, Watson:

“This educational institution has produced more Nobel Prize-winning graduates than Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Oxford, or Yale.”

The question, surprisingly, is “What is the New York City Public School system?”

From the 1930s through the 1970s, the New York schools (and not just that one high school in the Bronx) produced legions of future scientists and engineers, including many who later made pathbreaking discoveries: from superconducting materials to mating bacteria, from Arrow's Impossibility Theorem to the design of the atomic bomb.

Where should we assign the credit for this astonishing productivity? Some of it, undoubtedly, is due to the particular mix of immigrants whose children filled the schools. Some of it is also due to the culture of those times, which celebrated science and discovery, which knew you could free the world from Fascism, stave off Sputnik, and make it to the moon, if you just got the differential equations right.

But part of the credit must go to the science labs.

At the same time as it was teaching long division to future laureates like Richard Feynmann and Robert Solow, New York City built and rehabilitated thousands of schools. On each floor of every one of the intermediate and high schools, they put science labs—rows of lab benches with gas lines and sinks, rows of cabinets full of chemical supplies, and a huge demonstration bench across the front of the room with ring stands and clamps, for showing off what happens when you drop pure sodium into a beaker of water or mix hydrogen peroxide with liquid soap and then add potassium iodide. (Watson, take note: the former explodes, the latter turns to foam.)

I began my teaching career in such a room, in a school built in the South Bronx in 1960, in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik’s blinking passage across the sky. Of course, by the time I got there, the gas lines had long ago been permanently shut off. The faucets were hacked off at the base, leaving jagged pieces of metal coming out of the lab benches. The sinks were choked with debris and, in some cases, emptied not into plumbing but directly into the cabinet below, so that when young Jose and Arthur tried out their model volcano, a flood of baking soda-and-vinegar lava coursed across the floor. The chemical cabinets were empty, except for decades of old dittos and worksheets, several nests of mice, and one unstoppered bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid, the fumes of which had gradually turned the locker that held it into an ocean of rust.

The South Bronx has had some troubled years, no doubt. But this scene of decay is not unique to poor, inner-city schools. A trip through a middle-class suburban school might also show you sinks that don’t work and gas lines that no one knows how to turn on, microscopes with broken lenses and chemical cabinets with nothing in them but some aged litmus paper that no longer changes color in acid and base. Science class in such rooms can feel less like a trip to the future than a sojourn at an archeological dig.

What happened, to make us disinvest so thoroughly in science education?

Competing priorities within education deserves some of the blame. Although teachers’ salaries in American schools are lower than average for developed countries, American schools employ many more people than they once did, especially in special education and among specialists employed outside the classroom. And increasing regulation (and unnecessary asbestos abatement) has made even modest overhauls of school buildings prohibitively expensive.

Computer technology, meanwhile, has become a tantalizing investment for principals and grant agencies, at the expense of science supplies and equipment. Even science teachers themselves, some of them uncomfortable with the risks and inconvenience of doing real experiments, are often all too willing to pass out the laptops or textbooks and give their students something to do that, unlike hands-on labs, is quiet and indisputably safe. But staring at a screen is not conducting an experiment, and no amount of individualized support can make up for a classroom experience that, regrettably, involves filling out worksheets instead of blowing things up.

The “Sputnik Moment” that President Obama asserted was upon us, in which our relative educational attainment in science and math seems to fall further every year, cannot be solved with any single government intervention. But one thing we can take away from the original Sputnik moment is the importance of investing in high quality science labs and equipment, so that along with lots of Oobleck, Green Slime, and Elephant Toothpaste, the next generation’s Nobel Prize winners can also be made in the public schools.


  1. From my personal experience, I feel that the emphasis on standardized testing as a means of demonstrating learning practically forces teachers with ever-expanding curricula ( to teach to the test and encourage rote memorization, which leaves less time for student lab experimentation and the fun of discovery. This was true in my honors class in private school, so all the more so in a public school.

    Moreover, I can't help but feel that No Child Left Behind, though it focuses only on math and reading, only perpetuates this unfortunate standardized-testing culture, even in the sciences.

  2. That seems plausible, but I should add that science is much less thoroughly tested than reading or math as of now. It may be that districts are passing on their general anxiety about testing onto teachers by forcing them to cover more material, but it's also likely that schools (particularly high-poverty schools) have just diverted many of the resources they used to expend on science into subjects that are tested.

    I also don't think that we should think of lab-based (or "inquiry-based") science teaching as something that necessarily happens by itself if we just leave teachers alone. It both from investments of real resources-- building labs and buying equipment, and also out of a larger public culture that actually values intellectual inquiry and the scientific process. Both of these necessary ingredients, to me, seem to be presently missing.