School Laboratories Under the Microscope
Laboratory exercises are mandatory for any student studying Science in high school. This requirement is often overlooked by a majority of schools in Bangladesh. Students from both Bangla and English medium backgrounds go through a number of problems when it comes to acquiring essential lab skills.
While many schools will boast about their up-to-date lab facilities with dedicated staff, the reality is a different story altogether.
Many a time, school laboratories are seen as rooms barely used. With dusty counters and scarce materials to work with, the hype of lab classes only falls among students. Avijit Ghosh, a Chemistry teacher at Banani Bidyaniketan School and College, states that the school charges lab fees from students at the beginning of every semester but never takes any classes.
"The authorities are ready to spend their budget on trivial things but when asked to buy a reactant, they lose interest quickly," he states.
However, not all schools are guilty of poor lab facilities. Generally, lab classes begin from the eighth grade. Mehnaz Bushra Hamid, a recent Biotechnology graduate from Brac University who studied in Scholastica school, looks back in time and says, "We always had fresh reagents and well-maintained equipment. And spacious rooms where we could work on our own at times."
Despite having laboratories in their schools, students complain of not having spent enough time carrying out experiments. Manaara Saleh, a Lakehead Grammar School alumnus, recalls, "Going to the lab was a rare occasion. Most of the time, the teachers were used to demonstrating reactions in the classroom."
Adib Shaheen, an A Level candidate, adds that he thinks gaining hands-on experience helps students connect with the subject much better and helps with retaining enthusiasm as they advance. Whether it is the testing of pH of different solutions or measuring the velocity of a moving toy car, it is evident that a significant number of students are missing out on what it feels like to work in a lab. This is important to young learners who aim to study STEM-related majors at university.
At present, English medium students enrol in either of the two UK-based curricula and they vary in few ways; Edexcel provides paper-based tests only while Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) offers practical exams in some cases.
Very few English-medium schools are select venues for practicals. This has to do with the quality of labs and other factors that deem them fit for examination purposes by international boards. At this point, students do not feel comfortable with the idea of a real, practical exam even if given a chance.
Saleh says, "The fact that most of the lab-related syllabus is taught theoretically, there are high chances we would not perform well when we are manually put to test." This stresses the importance of trials and errors in labs where students can rediscover ideas by themselves and be confident about their results and observations.
When these classes do happen, they are lacking in more ways than one, thereby failing to meet students' needs. For starters, the duration of each class is either too short or not enough classes are taken on a weekly basis. Oftentimes, the capacity of a lab is insufficient to hold an entire class of students. As a result, students end up watching their teachers perform various procedures rather than try them out themselves. It can get too crowded to work and learn which also leads to unwanted group work that impedes individual creativity and freedom.
Ghosh complains, "Sixty students in a 30-minute period held for one or two days in the entire term, is it remotely adequate?" He further argues, "The way I see it is that students want to learn and it is the teachers' liability to teach. But in most cases the teachers are not interested in doing practical tasks".
Bangla medium teachers are busy with theoretical exams and bother little with lab routines. Students earn free marks by copying off lab reports from guidebooks in their practical exams. Current MBBS student Sheikh Sabila Afrine Sutopa, who studied at Uttara High School, says, "I remember we got full marks in our SSC practical exams without doing anything."
On the other hand, students studying under Edexcel and CAIE fare much better when it comes to fairness and impartiality in earning marks for such practical courses.
Sutopa thinks she would have been better prepared for the future if she had regular lab classes. "If I had the chance to do my experiments alone, I would not have struggled as much in my academic life later on," she comments.
Faiza Khondokar, a former student of SFX Greenherald International School, says, "A prior lab experience is why university lab classes did not seem daunting." She later adds that many of her peers would beg to differ as they did not have the same privilege in their respective schools.
Students who engage in lab problems can understand the theoretical concepts quickly and never develop a fear of working in labs. An ex-student of Udayan Higher Secondary School, Aditi Sarker, shares that she used to have one lab class per week in her school. She says, "It dissipated the monotony of the classroom. I looked forward to going to school when it was lab day." In hindsight, she feels that the instructors should have focused more on ensuring equal participation when working in groups.
Farhana Tasneem Chowdhury, a lecturer of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Dhaka, says that her students often fail to demonstrate basic laboratory skills. "We try to keep our first-year lab work as basic as possible. We do it so that those who did not have the chance to strengthen their foundation at school can get a shot".
If lab classes were properly held in all schools, universities would not be stuck with beginner courses. Students would have been capable of taking on more advanced classes sooner in their undergraduate journey. Apart from that, students can get acquainted with lab etiquette and learn how to navigate themselves in such a setting early on.
Ghosh suggests that schools should aim to take one-hour lab classes thrice a week. Chowdhury thinks funding will be necessary to accomplish such a feat.
"If the government allotted more budget to the education sector Bangla medium schools can provide better lab education by allowing each individual its own working space and separate instruments to work with," she recommends.
With the national curriculum stressing ways to increase Golden A-pluses, the importance of practical lab skills goes severely unnoticed while students following international syllabuses endure the pain of negligence. These students equally suffer from the dearth of science practicality in their education. This, later on, takes into effect as a reduced drive in seeking research careers or jobs that value lab skills in general. Students grow up to view lab science as unimportant. But, if provided with the help they need, students can achieve a lot more in STEM and research related fields.
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