Online AP science classes -- with lab?

Adventures in Ethics and Science field operative RMD alerted me to a recent article in the New York Times (free registration required) about an ongoing debate on the use of online instruction for Advanced Placement science classes. The crux of the debate is not the value of online science classes per se, but whether such courses can accomplish the objectives of an AP science course if they don't include a traditional, hands-on laboratory component.

The debate is interesting for a few reasons. First, it gets to the question of what precisely an AP course is intended to do. Second, it brings up the question of who has access to AP courses -- and the special challenges presented for science instruction in some regions. Finally, I think it also prompts an examination of how colleges and universities deal with incoming student bodies whose preparation for college is rather more heterogeneous than homogeneous.

Full disclosure: As some of you already know, I regularly teach an online section of my philosophy of science course.* As well, about a hundred years ago, I was a high school student who took a bunch** of AP classes and AP tests.

Here are some nuggets from the article:

When the Internet was just beginning to shake up American education, a chemistry professor photographed thousands of test tubes holding molecular solutions and, working with video game designers, created a simulated laboratory that allowed students to mix chemicals in virtual beakers and watch the reactions.

In the years since, that virtual chemistry laboratory -- as well as other simulations allowing students to dissect virtual animals or to peer into tidal pools in search of virtual anemone -- has become a widely used science teaching tool. The virtual chemistry laboratory alone has some 150,000 students seated at computer terminals around the country to try experiments that would be too costly or dangerous to do at their local high schools. "Some kids figure out how to blow things up in half an hour," said the professor, Brian F. Woodfield of Brigham Young University.

Now, however, a dispute with potentially far-reaching consequences has flared over how far the Internet can go in displacing the brick-and-mortar laboratory.Prompted by skeptical university professors, the College Board, one of the most powerful organizations in American education, is questioning whether Internet-based laboratories are an acceptable substitute for the hands-on culturing of gels and peering through microscopes that have long been essential ingredients of American laboratory science.

As part of a broader audit of the thousands of high school courses that display its Advanced Placement trademark, the board has recruited panels of university professors and experts in Internet-based learning to scrutinize the quality of online laboratories used in Web-based A.P. science courses.

"Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they'd be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab," said Trevor Packer, the board's executive director for Advanced Placement. "You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner."

Internet-based educators are seeking to convince the board, and the public, that their virtual laboratories are educationally sound, pointing out that their students earn high scores on the A.P. exams. They also say online laboratories are often the only way advanced science can be taught in isolated rural schools or impoverished urban ones. Online schooling, which was all but nonexistent at the elementary and secondary level a decade ago, is today one of the fastest-growing educational sectors, with some half-million course enrollments nationwide. ...

"Members of the College Board insist that college-level laboratory science courses not be labeled 'A.P.' without a physical lab," the board said in a letter sent to online schools in April. "Online science courses can only be labeled 'A.P.' if the online provider" can ensure "that students have a guided, hands-on (not virtual) laboratory experience."

But after an outcry by online schools, the board issued an apology in June, acknowledging that "there may be new developments" in online learning that could merit its endorsement.

Mr. Packer of the College Board said in an interview that the board had set up three five-member panels composed of biology, chemistry and physics professors and online educators, which are to meet in New York next month to review the online laboratories offered by Internet-based schools for A.P. courses.

The board's rulings will determine whether high schools can apply the A.P. designation to online science courses starting next fall on the transcripts of students applying to colleges, Mr. Packer said.

In recent conversations with college science professors, the board has encountered considerable skepticism that virtual laboratories can replace hands-on experience, he said.

But educators at several prominent online schools pointed to their students' high scores on A.P. exams.

On the 2005 administration of the A.P. biology exam, for instance, 61 percent of students nationwide earned a qualifying score of three or above on the A.P.'s five-point system. Yet 71 percent of students who took A.P. biology online through the Florida Virtual School, and 80 percent of students who took it from the Virtual High School, earned a three or higher on that test.

(Bold emphasis added)

The idea behind the Advanced Placement program is roughly that high school students take college-level courses, take Advanced Placement exams to demonstrate their mastery of the material, and then use their exam scores either to receive college credit for having taken those courses (once they are ensconced at a college or university and working towards a college degree) or to place out of the courses analogous to the AP courses and start their college studies past the introductory level classes. AP classes have been the kind of things that relatively wealthy school districts usually offer and relatively poor districts (or districts with small enough enrollments that it's hard to round up enough students to justify offering particular AP classes) usually don't offer. It's not enough, of course, to have enough kids to populate an AP course and the resources to provide the appropriate textbooks. You also need teachers who can handle teaching this material.

And, if the AP course in question is a science course -- and it's meant to duplicate the content of the corresponding intro-level college course -- you need appropriate facilities and materials (and supervision) to conduct laboratory exercises. That isn't cheap, and it's not easy. As soon as you're contemplating running a chemistry lab, for example, you need to have a plan to deal with the hazardous waste your experiments might produce. You need to work out whether your experiments will necessitate fume hoods, whether you'll be working with substances which might make an eyewash necessary, how you'll handle broken glassware ... Will the school board see its way to paying for the school to install gas and vacuum lines, or a deionized water tap? Now, the advent of "green chemistry" may make some of this easier, but it hasn't been fully adopted by colleges yet, and I'm guessing its dissemination to high schools will be slower.

(For the record, when I taught intro chem labs at community college, there were no Bunsen burners to speak of -- because of the fire hazard, we used other methods for heating what needed to be heated.)

I'm guessing the challenges for setting up a biology laboratory in a high school are roughly equivalent. Dissections require specimens, often fixed in solutions that are not great for human health, or live -- which requires oversight to make sure the dissections serve an educational purpose that warrants the use of the animals, and that the animal suffering is minimized. You still have to make arrangements for hazardous waste. At least in my day, biology class included fire (from alcohol lamps) -- which meant the occasional student setting something on fire. Dissection tools are sharp, which means there is the potential -- frequently actualized -- for students to wound themselves.

In short, schools that are already stretched to the limit may well avoid taking on the extra burden of setting up AP labs.

In the college science teacher's mind, this is a tragedy. Part of learning science, after all, is doing science -- messing around with the actual systems rathing than just reading textbook accounts of them. If a laboratory component is central to the learning that is supposed to happen in an intro level science class, how can we recognize someone who hasn't had these experiences as having the equivalent coursework from an AP course?

Is the laboratory component central to the intro courses? Some colleges and universities actually offer intro science courses that are lecture only, and offer the corresponding lab work in separate courses. Other schools don't do it this way, but this seems to mean that the real problem is knowing what to do with someone's AP credit when they get to your college, rather than that you can't learn course content without also doing laboratory experiments. And really, at the intro level, the thing the laboratory experiments contribute pedagogically is a chance to grapple with scientific approaches to problem solving -- something that might not require a particular canonical set of laboratory experiments.

Indeed, as the article suggests, patterns of scientific problem solving might be the kind of thing a well-designed online course could convey pretty well:

The science courses offered by some online high schools draw on multiple Internet sites that provide data, then lead students through an analysis. At one site, for instance, operated by the University of Arizona, students collect data from the cells of an onion root and use it to calculate the duration of each phase in the cells' division.

Chemistry and other science courses at many Internet-based high schools include laboratories often characterized as "kitchen science," in which students use household materials -- ice, cooking oil, glass jars -- to carry out experiments.

" 'Make sure we have potatoes in the house,' my daughter told me before her last lab," in which students studied osmosis, said Mayuri Shah, whose daughter Sonia is taking A.P. biology from the Florida Virtual School. Sonia, 16, enrolled in the online course because her high school in Lecanto, Fla., north of Tampa, does not offer it. ...

ConVal High School in Peterborough, N.H., offers more than a dozen science courses, but zoology is not among them. So Katherine Lantz, a junior, is studying it online.

One recent evening she was at home, moving through a virtual pig dissection screen by screen. One image showed a pig kidney, outlined by pulsing yellow dots.

"Whoa, that's kind of gross!" Katherine said. She clicked her mouse, causing a virtual scalpel to lay the pig's kidney open, its internal regions highlighted by blinking labels.

"Its nice to have it enlarged because if we were dissecting this in my school lab this would be hard to see," Katherine said. "I learn a lot online -- as much as I would attending a physical class."

But Earl W. Fleck, the biology professor who created the virtual pig dissection, believes otherwise. Dr. Fleck began working on the virtual dissection in 1997 to help his students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., review for tests and to offer a substitute for those who, for ethical reasons, objected to working with once-living specimens.

Dr. Fleck, who is now provost at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, said students worldwide found the virtual dissection useful. But he called it "markedly inferior" to performing a real dissection.

"You don't get the look and the feel and the smell," he said.

I'm not unsympathetic to Dr. Fleck's concern here. Especially for students who are planning to pursue further study in the sciences, "handskills" are very useful. But handskills are not fully congruent with being a skilled observer, nor with being competent at reasoning about data. As well, Dr. Fleck might be shocked at some of what actually happens in a high school laboratory. (In my AP Chemistry class, one of the future M.D.s developed his skills with burettes almost entirely in the service of water-fights.)

My sense from my own experience (both as a student and then later as an instructor) is that students start college with a very wide range of technical competence in the laboratory -- even students who have all taken traditional AP classes. College tends to be where students start to really learn their "handskills" if they're going to learn them at all. When I took the AP Chemistry exam, they didn't make me perform a titration. When I took the AP Biology exam, there was no dissected cat at the front of the room whose muscles required identification. In other words, even though I had the benefit of lots of hands-on laboratory time, that wasn't what the exam was testing.

I would love for schools without the resources to offer proper labs to get those resources so that their students can benefit from laboratory experience. Until that happens, I worry that demanding that AP instruction requires traditional labs will leave AP available primarily to the well-to-do. Especially given that students without the resources to spend 5, 6, or 7 years completing an undergraduate degree are just the ones who could most benefit from taking college credit for AP courses, I hope the College Board will give the pedagogical effectiveness of "online experiments" a fair evaluation.

In the meantime, it seems to me that most college science departments could address worries about the lab-readiness of their incoming students with AP credits by putting together low-unit, lab-only "handskills bootcamp" courses. After all, organic chemistry lab isn't all water-fights.

*However, neither the online nor the "live" sections of this course include a laboratory component.

**If memory serves, they were: English, U.S. History, Latin, Modern European History, Calculus BC, Chemistry, and Biology. I didn't end up using my AP tests to count for college credit, but instead used them to place out of introductory level science classes.


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"In the meantime, it seems to me that most college science departments could address worries about the lab-readiness of their incoming students with AP credits by putting together low-unit, lab-only "handskills bootcamp" courses."

My alma mater more or less does this (they have since sometime in the mid nineties, I think). Students who come in having taken AP chem are put in a separate, lab-centered, intro course. This course plus the AP credit takes the place of the normal two introductory courses.

And this is yet another reason why schools that are primarily funded by local property taxes are inherently unfair. You get these nice little self-reinforcing loops where high local wealth leads to better schools which leads to higher property values and thus higher local wealth which leads to even better schools...

There really ought to be a standardized per-student allocation to each school district. It might not allow every school to pay for things like electrophoresis equipment for AP Bio labs, but it will go a long way to address the glaring disparities that we have now.

I am on the fence about the lab component. Many students end up taking the same classes they would have placed out of with the AP classes, either to take an easy semester, or to feel more secure with the material- kind of like "AP class as primer." In these situations, it might be OK to not have the lab component.

"...which meant the occasional student setting something on fire. Dissection tools are sharp, which means there is the potential -- frequently actualized -- for students to wound themselves."

Oh, My. God. Did these poor traumatized students get counseling? Are they ever going to recover?

On its most fundamental level, science is the study of the real world. Digitizing it any more than is necessary runs the risk of removing the entire point of studying the discipline in the first place.

And the real world is an accident-prone place. If you surround your students in bubble wrap during their teenage years instead of teaching them to access risk in a controlled environment, how will they ever mature?

Oh, My. God. Did these poor traumatized students get counseling? Are they ever going to recover?

Hey, *I* survived the cuts and singes and acid burning holes through my jeans and all of that. But kids (especially teenagers) will take on all kinds of risks. The folks deciding whether they can offer labs are keeping a close eye on their liability insurance (and possibly getting advice from a school district lawyer). They probably see the cost-benefit balance differently.

At my school, even with a 5 on the AP, you are required to take at least 1 semester of freshman chemistry labs. Perhaps this could be a solution, removing the lab component from AP classes all together and making kids do it when they actually get to college?

I am a first semester science student at a major University. My Bio lab wasn't very good. Chem was ok. Lots of lineups and we did everything as partners so we only did half or less. I don't think anyone missing a semester or two of actual vs. online labs is missing anything important.