One might assume that a science lab is a place where critical thinking is encouraged and practiced. But one would be wrong.

“Traditionally, the way labs have been run is, students are given a procedure that they follow and conduct an experiment to observe a particular phenomenon,” explains Natasha Holmes, an assistant professor at Cornell University specializing in physics education. “But there’s not a lot of critical thinking there. Most of the decisions are laid out for the students.”

Holmes has plenty of proof to back up that claim. She’s part of an ongoing effort to change how science labs are taught—by shifting the focus from a paint-by-numbers, confirming-findings approach to equipping students with critical thinking skills.

Otherwise, sticking with the old-school routine practiced for decades results in students “who don’t think like scientists,” says Holmes. Plus, the skills students learn stick with them, not just for months but years afterwards.

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