October 23, 2006
High School Biology Without the Formaldehyde Smell
Posted by Christine Hurt

By the time I graduated from high school, I had dissected three frogs, a pig and countless earthworms in my quest for a well-rounded education.  I had also learned how to use a Bunsen burner, mostly to heat substances to create a reaction guaranteed to produce that great sulfur smell.  I was lucky in Chemistry -- my total bill at the end was around $8 for assorted tubes I could not find.  My lab partner's bill was over $150 because he broke that really big beaker they tell you not to break.  All of this lab angst may be coming to an end, according to the NYT, with online high school laboratories.

Obviously, labs are expensive.  So students at some high schools find themselves unable to take a class in say, zoology.  Voila, the Internet!  Through online high schools, students can take courses they are interested in and create chemistry explosions or dissect animal cadavers online in video-game like simulations.  Some educators are skeptical, arguing that no simulation can duplicate a real chemistry lab or biology lab.  One educator expressed disdain that a student would graduate from high school without learning how to turn on a Bunsen burner.  Surely this teacher was speaking metaphorically; I'm not sure what the act of igniting a gas flame teaches a person who wants to be pre-med.  (I've used a gas stove thousands of times for cooking.  I should be an M.D. by now.)

Some of the arguments seemed familiar to me.  During my five-year journey teaching legal writing, I often witnessed heated arguments over whether teaching students electronic research could replace traditional library research.  Often faculty would invoke the same rhetoric:  "To do research, you have to smell the books."  "How can someone graduate without having to wade through four volumes of Shepard's citations?"  "I just like the way the case looks in the book."  Ah, the Bunsen burner!

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