“Labs are not important” was the conclusion of a recent article in a physics education journal. The basis for this conclusion was a college experiment. Students in a large physics lecture class were divided into two groups, half who also took the physics lab and half who did not. Analysis of their lecture class tests showed absolutely no difference in performance.

Of course. It was not a lab test. But the authors and the journal reviewers saw no difference.

For more than 20 years, with the ascendancy of computer simulations, I have seen the same cluelessness in the journal Advances in Physiology Education. Again and again, a lab-versus-no-lab or lab-versus-computer-simulation would be “tested” and show no differences in student performance. Sometimes the article provided sample questions. Other times I had to contact the author. When I saw the questions, they were — you guessed it — lecture questions.

I would ask the experimenter why he did not set up lab questions, such as the dissected critter with labeled pins stuck in various organs, and ask the student to identity the organ?

“Oh, that would be unfair!” always was the reply. Absolutely clueless!

Any veteran science teacher has given tests or quizzes where the student gets the question correct when identifying a structure on a diagram in a written lecture test, but then got the question wrong when asked to actually identity the exact same structure in a real specimen.

Seeing a structure on a computer screen is no improvement because much anatomy is identified by actually detecting where the structure came from or is going to. It is “hands on.”

And do any of us want a doctor, nurse or veterinarian whose only experience with anatomy was on a video screen?

One of the most important aspects of real labs is seeing that not all specimens are picture-perfect or identical with the perfect illustration selected for the textbook or computer-screen. Indeed, a lab cat with four kidneys instead of two is not uncommon. When these variations are discovered, the lab instructor will call everyone over to see the anomaly. That variation-from-the-norm is a lesson that you want your doctor, nurse and all other health care workers to understand.

To really understand how to conduct physics experiments or discern anatomy is a hands-on experience. That requires hands-on tests to evaluate that new understanding. Textbook tests don’t cut it.

I had an alternate route student teacher who understood this well. Her major was biology. When I visited her biology class in a rural Kansas school a few years back, she did fairly well. I also stayed for her next period class which was in earth sciences. She did not have any advanced college courses in earth sciences. So her teaching was straight-from-the-book. It was obvious — not only to me but to every high school student in her classroom — that she was only one day ahead of them in class.

I returned to my university and asked earth science professors to donate their extra textbooks. Textbook companies send professors potential textbooks and only one gets adopted; my colleagues usually have a supply of alternate texts laying around. The next time I visited my alt-route teacher, I gave her this stack of earth science books so she could self-study and have some examples to use in class that were different from the high school textbook.

She said, “Thank you, but I really need to take these courses and their labs.”

That was a brilliant answer, but I asked her why she thought that.

“I need the labs so I know what I am talking about. Otherwise its just words in the book. To me. And to the students. And I need to learn to use the lab equipment, so I can show my kids how to do the science. And I need to know more so I can help the bright student who wants to learn more.”

Wow. What a reply.

I told her that I wished I could drive her up to the State Board and have her repeat what she had just told me, because the board had just voted to let teachers add another teaching field by just taking a test — a lecture test. The board was clueless about the importance of laboratory experiences. And so were those authors and reviewers of the physics and anatomy journals.

John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.