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How important are homeschool science labs for college admission?

Following is an email conversation between Lee Binz, proprietor of The HomeScholar, and myself.   

Hands-on High School science lab work is critical for homeschoolers applying to some universities.

Hands-on High School science lab work is critical for homeschoolers applying to some universities.

Dear Lee,

 I just read your Special Report – 7 Secrets to Homeschooling Through a Financial Storm and think it was very well done. Lots of great tips for saving money and giving parents confidence to strike out on their own a bit more.

I was surprised to see that you suggested skipping Biology or doing it with media applications (online or video) instead of hands-on.  In Arizona, the state universities are very particular about the high school sciences being first-hand LAB courses.  This is something that I have stressed with my contacts and in my workshops–not just Biology, but any high school science needs to be documented actual lab work.

Tell me what you have encountered that puts a lighter emphasis on the labs. Is this more a state-by-state emphasis or is there more of a trend toward “softer” science coursework?

Dear Holly,

I was surprised to see my suggestion about dropping Biology lab too, because I’m a nurse!  I loved biology – and especially the biology labs! I think it’s important to remember how financially desperate people can be in this economy.  It’s better to drop a biology lab than not do biology at all – or stop homeschooling entirely because of concerns about science. 


  • First, public universities sometimes have very different requirements than colleges as a whole.  I have to gear my message to “general” college preparation.  The UW in Seattle requires that lab sciences be taught in a classroom with a certified teacher, for example, and I don’t mention that in my article.  It’s a general college prep article.
  • There is a difference between a public school requirement for something,and what your state law requires from homeschoolers.  I see that a lot as I work with homeschoolers nationwide.  They think that because a class is required for high school graduation that they also need to meet the requirement, and that often is not true.  I don’t think you were concerned about that in your question, but it’s worth throwing it out there.
  • There is no national definition about what a lab science really is. No definition.  Here is a snippet from an upcoming article I’ve written about lab sciences:
    The US House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology formed the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education issued a report about lab science, and it is remarkably clear in their conclusion.(http://commdocs.house.gov/committees/science/hsy33612.000/hsy33612_0f.htm)
    National Research Council’s America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science states, “The NRC report committee concluded that there exists no commonly agreed upon definition of laboratories in high schools amongst researchers and educators.”

  •  Most colleges do not require documented lab sciences.  Some colleges do. The most important thing for parents is to research the schools where they plan to apply.  Usually a college that has specific science requirements from homeschoolers will also provide a method for them to achieve success.
    Perhaps they will allow the ACT science portion to meet the requirement, or they will accept an SAT Subject Test or AP exam in a science area.
  • There are many colleges that don’t require excessive math or science. Perhaps their emphasis is music or art or a specific trade, and general sciences meet their admission requirements.  There is a very wide variety of colleges that homeschool parents choose.
  • In general, when I look over the college preparation sites, they don’t mention taking a lab science every year.  Even the College Board doesn’t specifically mention a lab science. It mentions three years of science, but isn’t specific about the lab requirement.


Science teaches students to think analytically and apply theories to reality. Laboratory classes let students test what they have learned through hands-on work. Six semesters are recommended.

  – Two semesters in biology
  – Two semesters in chemistry and/or physics
  – Two semesters in earth/space sciences, advanced biology, advanced   chemistry, or physics

It’s a good idea to make parents aware that the public university in your area has a greater emphasis in lab science.  But I think it’s good to remember that colleges are rarely specific about WHICH sciences, and it’s OK for parents to have some delight-directed science courses along with the more ordinary biology-chemistry-physics choices.

Read more.

2 Responses

  1. While America’s Lab Report stated that no consensus for a definition exists, it did offer its own to fill that gap.

    “Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

    It also provided a rationale for including these experiences in a person’s education. In my opinion, you should know why you’re subjecting yourself or your student to expensive and time-consuming lab work before you go ahead and do it — aside from some state or university requirement, that is.

    Here’s my three favorite goals, as a scientist. You will achieve these goals much more readily with well-designed and well-presented lab work than with lecture, books, videos, simulations, etc.

    1. Understand the nature of science. Real comprehension of what science is all about tends to elude many science students, in part because many science teachers don’t really understand science either.

    2. Develop scientific reasoning skills. Not knowing the outcome of experimental work and taking imprecise data requires you to figure out what it all means. Sometimes, it means redesign the experiment. Thinking through the implications of your data is great mental exercise.

    3. Appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of the work that scientists do. A true appreciation of this aspect of science is very difficult to achieve without walking in the footsteps of scientists. Taking real data from the real world supports your efforts to comprehend the daily life of a scientist. Then, you’re better prepared to read about this discovery or that breakthrough in science and understand what it really means.

    Having said all of that, students don’t really have to have labs to pass AP exams or any other paper exams. My son is a good example. His AP Physics class had absolutely no labs at all. Yet, he scored 5-5 on the AP Physics exam. So did many others in his class.

    We all worry too much about exam results and college entrance requirements, in my opinion. We worry too little about the real learning taking place.

    All of this is not to say that hands-on is the ONLY way. As long as it meets the ALR definition about, it’s a lab. If it meets enough of the remaining ALR goals, then it’s a useful lab, and it’s likely that your student will benefit from doing it. You’ll see, if you read the definition carefully, that simulations are not labs, but that some virtual labs are.

    • Dear Harry,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I totally agree that the reason for doing labs should be to gain a deeper understanding of the subject studied and the discipline of science in general. It would be wonderful if we could all teach children out of the sheer delight of discovery, rather than because we need some credentials.

      It would also be great if public schoolers were held to the same standard that the homeschoolers are. I have known of public high schools in which the science classes had about one lab per quarter–even in advanced classes! The typical homeschooler who takes time to do any labs at all will generally do far more than that, and yet science is the key area in Arizona that is up for question at the state universities.

      I think the key is learning to learn for the joy of learning, and then we probably cover the bases.

      I would like to hear more about your last comment that simulations are not labs but some virtual ones are.

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