Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Readers of stories about Berkeley Unified School District considering scrapping before and after school science laboratories should not misconstrue these deliberations as anti-science activities. As with almost everything else, we can’t understand the present unless we understand the history. For many years, science education at Berkeley High School took place in long, double period science classes, where students could benefit from integrated lecture and laboratory experiences, practice inquiry learning, etc. These double period classes, however created problems in scheduling classes in non-science subjects that didn’t require double periods, as well as some other problems with staffing. In 2002 – 03, double-periods were abandoned; BHS was reorganized into a 6-period day with standard-length classes.

According to the recollection of a person we spoke to in the administration at BUSD, the before and after school science labs were added approximately at the time the district moved away from the double period science classes.

It is these laboratories–scheduled outside of the regular school day–that are being considered for elimination. All science laboratories will not be eliminated from the curriculum, of course; science labs will simply be integrated back into the regular classroom period. Teachers like being able to have more classroom time, so they opposed the cancellation of the before and after school laboratories. Students, at least according to newspaper articles, seem to have — predictably — mixed opinions on having to get up early or stay late for required laboratories! If students are in regular science classes, they are to attend one of these before or after school laboratories per week, and if they are in AP (Advanced Placement) courses, they must attend two. (FYI: AP courses are courses taught at the high school level for which many universities give high school credit, assuming the student passes a nationally-administered examination. In some schools, a very small percentage of students pass this annual exam, which is considered quite rigorous. Berkeley high school takes pride in its high percentage of students passing this test.)

The question that faces BUSD in a time of shrinking revenues is how best to spend its money: a perennial problem, exacerbated in the present economic climate, and certainly not unique to Berkeley. Berkeley High students do well in science; an argument can be made for rewarding that accomplishment and maintaining that excellence. Berkeley High minority students are struggling; an argument can be made for increasing resources to try to improve that situation. Here is another recent story with a little bit more information, for those of you who are interested:…

That said, if the decision is made to drop the before and after laboratories, the challenge will be for BUSD teachers, as it is for teachers everywhere who don’t have the resources of a district like Berkeley, to teach smarter. Laboratories can be wonderful learning experiences or laboratories can be waste of time. Does a laboratory actually teach students about how science is done, or does it consist of following a recipe to get the ???right??? answer? Just having students spend time in a lab is no guarantee that learning is taking place. A good teacher will figure out how to integrate inquiry learning into a classroom format even without a formal laboratory. We encourage the science teachers of BHS to rise to the challenge ??? and the citizens of Berkeley to continue to support science education as they have in the past.

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