New research suggests that students who have access to hands-on science activities may learn much more than their peers do. That raises a critical question: Do all students have ready access to very good hands-on learning opportunities? A quick review of national data suggests that low-income students in particular do not.
The most recent evidence on the impact of hands-on science comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science (NAEP). In 2011, students who engaged in hands-on science activities at least once or twice a week in school scored 14 points higher on NAEP than students who never or hardly ever did. That amounts to roughly a grade level of learning--or more.
Skeptics charge that these NAEP findings might have more to do with correlation than causation. They speculate that wealthy students, who happen to score higher on NAEP, are most likely do more hands-on activities. That doesn't mean that the hands-on activities actually caused their higher scores.
This is an important caution, but a closer look at NAEP data doesn't bear it out. When we break the findings down by student eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch programs (FRPL--a measure of low income), we find that eligibility doesn't have a very big impact on student access to hands-on science activities in school.* Score one for hands-on.
Bigger differences emerge, however, when we look at the kinds of resources schools have to support hands-on learning. Take, for example, the supplies schools provide for science labs. Only 32 percent of low-income students have teachers who report having "a lot" of the "supplies or equipment" they need for