The beauty of armchair science

This past week or two I’ve been immersing myself in one empirical study after another, appreciating how much less time it takes to read a study than to actually do one… Which has reminded me of this Out in Left Field post from around nine years ago.

The beauty of armchair science

Education experts have long assumed that the best way to engage students is to make learning as hands-on as possible. The subject that most legitimately lends itself to this is science. Hands-on science–i.e., science experiments–would seem the perfect way to get students thinking scientifically and seeing the excitement of real-life hypothesis testing. Not to mention the excitement of Bunsen burners and explosive reactions.

The main argument that skeptics have leveled against hands-on science concerns elementary school students: they aren’t “little scientists” but novices who need a strong foundation in content before their lab experiences can be meaningful and memorable.

In terms of the broader discipline, of course, experiments and knowledge go hand in hand: labs are essential for the advancement of science. But are they essential for learning what’s already been empirically established? And is lab-based learning necessarily more fun and engaging than learning from teachers and textbooks?

Labs, after all, can be a real headache. Measurements can be slow and tedious; many things can go wrong; results often don’t make sense; some procedures involving long periods of standing, bending over, and careful monitoring. Different people have different levels of tolerance, and many students end up hating the lab component of courses they otherwise find interesting.

A friend of mine recently described to me her favorite college science course–in fact, one of her favorite courses of all. It was a class focused entirely on the psycho-neurology of the flatworm, run entirely as a seminar. First the professor would present some general topic in psychology or neurology; then he’d extend it to the flatworm and pose a few questions, soliciting various hypotheses from students.

He’d then ask them: “How would you set up an experiment to test that?” The students would flesh out the experimental design.

Did they then go out and perform the experiment? Nope. Instead the professor would say: “That exact experiment just happens to have been done, and here’s what they found.”

“It was great,” my friend told me. “We went through all the interesting steps in thinking through the experiment without actually having to do it!”

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