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Science educators have believed that the laboratory is an important means of instruction in science since late in the 19th century. Laboratory activities were used in high school chemistry in the 1880s (Fay, 1931). In 1886, Harvard University published a list of physics experiments that were to be included in high school physics classes for students who wished to enroll at Harvard (Moyer, 1976). Laboratory instruction was considered essential because it provided training in observation, supplied detailed information, and aroused pupils’ interest. These same reasons are still accepted almost 100 years later.

Shulman and Tamir, in the Second Handbook of Research on Teaching (Travers, ed., 1973), listed five groups of objectives that may be achieved through the use of the laboratory in science classes:

  1. skills – manipulative, inquiry, investigative, organizational, communicative
  2. concepts – for example, hypothesis, theoretical model, taxonomic category
  3. cognitive abilities – critical thinking, problem solving, application, analysis, synthesis
  4. understanding the nature of science – scientific enterprise, scientists and how they work, existence of a multiplicity of scientific methods, interrelationships between science and technology and among the various disciplines of science
  5. attitudes – for example, curiosity, interest, risk taking, objectivity, precision,confidence, perseverance, satisfaction, responsibility, consensus, collaboration, and liking science (1973, p.1119).