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Why You Need Lab Science

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #77, 2007.

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Bill Pride


If you ever intend to apply to college, or to have one of your children apply to college, read on. You could be heading for a huge disappointment if you make one particular mistake in how you plan your curriculum.

We just found out that one of our young in-laws will not be attending the college of her choice this fall. With great happiness, she had received her acceptance letter in the spring. This late in the summer, she was already planning what to pack and bring to her new dorm. She couldn't believe it when, just last week, the college wrote her again, telling her not to come.

What had gone wrong?

It turns out that her public-school guidance counselor gave her some bad advice. There had been a scheduling conflict with the physics course, with associated lab, that she had signed up to take her final semester. Rather than revising her schedule to accommodate that physics section, or substituting another lab science course, the counselor told her that the non-lab chemistry she had already taken was good enough.

Big mistake!

Good Colleges Demand Lab Science

I've said it before and I'll say it again: You can't get into a decent college without lab science. You can't get into a good college without lots of lab science.

To be safe, it's best to plan for four years of high-school science, with at least two of them being lab science. If you're aiming for MIT or Stanford (or the equivalent), make that three or four years of lab science. This means you should plan to take your first lab science course in your ninth grade year.

What Is Lab Science?

A lab science course that colleges will accept has to include a fairly large number of experiments which illustrate the scientific principles being taught in the "lecture" portion of the course. My high-school chemistry class had a lab period once a week. Even if we actually did an experiment in half the class periods, that would come out to 18 experiments in a year of chemistry.

The experiments have to be high-school quality. It isn't enough just to take nature walks, gathering leaves and pressing them, or to look at the stars to pick out constellations. High-school level lab science goes beyond simply appreciating creation to actually studying it. If you gather the leaves while carefully cataloging what plant they came from in order to classify the plants, or if you collect leaves in order to extract the pigments for paper chromatography, or if you spot constellations in order to locate the North Star and measure its angle of inclination from the horizon at midnight and then use an almanac to determine your latitude, those are high-school-level experiments.

Lab science in high school is meant to introduce you to lab science in college. It is meant to teach lab procedures, lab safety, use of equipment, data gathering and measurements, graphing and charting of data, calculations to determine physical relationships, how to use logic to devise experiments and interpret results, and integrity in reporting results. In short, lab science teaches the scientific method.

Creating your own experiments or equipment is not advisable in a high-school science course. Creativity is not wanted at this point. If someone examines your science course's lab component, he will be looking for thoroughness - whether or not it covers the standard range of experiments in a way that teaches the concepts those experiments were meant to teach. So it's best to use "standard" resources.

The exception to this rule is if you're doing cutting-edge research, like Philip Streich, the Intel Science and Engineering Fair winner we interviewed last issue, though I am sure even he went through the standard prerequisite chemistry and physics before he was able to participate in the research that led to his award.

Equipment Needed

Lab courses require supplies and equipment beyond what is normally found in the home.

First you need consumables, breakables, and disposables. Consumables are chemicals staining solutions, etc. that get used up in an experiment. Breakables are glassware or plasticware things like beakers and flasks, thermometers, or microscope slides and cover slips that are reusable, but may break and need to be replaced. Disposables are things like pipettes, rubber gloves, and filter paper that are used once and thrown away.

You'll also need some more expensive stuff like a triple beam balance for chemistry, a good (not toy) microscope for biology, a telescope for astronomy, or a plethora of weights, pulleys, spring scales, electrical meters and other equipment for physics. If you use cheap equipment, you'll get less accurate results. If you're strapped for cash, try buying quality used equipment at eBay or on homeschool buy/sell forums.

Just as makers of calculators have insinuated calculators into the teaching of math, makers of data collection gadgets seem to be trying to invade the teaching of lab science. So far the use of such technology is not required, but it is something we're watching.

Sources for Lab Science

Major Christian textbook publishers (A Beka, BJU, etc.) offer lab science courses and materials. University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Independent Study High School also offers lab science courses with complete lab materials and equipment kits.

Some companies offer kits for high-school lab science (Home Science Tools, Ward's Natural Science, Tobin's Lab, and Quality Science Labs, etc.).

Some homeschool co-ops offer lab classes; some private schools will let homeschoolers take their science classes. Ask around.

Community college and local college "dual credit" courses provide both instruction and highly verifiable labs. Biology, geology, and astronomy are likely to include lots of evolution, but you can't avoid evolution forever. If your student is ready, this is an easy option.

Documenting Your Labs

Lab notebooks are not required, but are good to have. You will have to prepare a lab notebook for all your college lab-science courses. You might as well get some practice in high school.

Take a photo of your student doing each experiment. Be sure to make multiple copies for multiple college portfolios, plus a "home" set for your records.

If You Don't Take Enough Labs

It's possible to meet minimum state requirements and get accepted to a lower-tier college. But if your eventual goal is to transfer to a college with a strong reputation, this just means you'll have to face up to more lab science in college.

Our relative is now planning to attend junior college for two years, before applying once again to her dream college, this time as a transfer student. You can be sure one of the first courses she'll take at the junior college will be... lab science.


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