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.
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 science labs. Compare that to 42 percent of students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
If we look at the percentage of students who have access to measurement instruments, a similar pattern emerges: Only 35 percent of students who are eligible for FRPL have teachers who report "a lot" of access to such instruments. Among students who are not eligible for FRPL, it's 44 percent.
And what about access to student lab stations? Fifty-nine percent of students who are eligible, compared to 67 percent of students who are not.
Champions of hands-on science learning have a right to crow over the recent NAEP results. After all, the NAEP findings support other research on the subject. (See the National Research Council, for example.) One of the big challenges before us is to ensure that many more students have access to the best kinds of hands-on teaching.
Our quick and crude review of the NAEP data suggest that we should worry about unequal access to that sort of teaching. The data aren't perfect, to be sure, but they give us real cause for concern.
* The data don't allow us to dig more deeply into income levels to determine differences between students at the highest and lowest income levels.