Some experiences to add to the discussion-none of these have to do with what
I see as the intrinsic value of a lab course for every educated person.
My husband teaches at a small state university (15,000 students, several
masters programs and 2-3 PhD programs). They have a requirement that all
students take a lab course. It's called "Contemporary Biology", taught at
just about high school level (they use the same book my kids used in high
school). Physics and Chemistry may offer similar courses, but the majority
of the students take Biology "because its easy". Inside the department it
is sometimes referred to as "Contemptible Biology", because the attitude of
some students toward the subject is sheer contempt.
However, I did my doctoral work at an Ivy League institution, where one
could easily graduate without ever taking a lab course. A change was in the
works when I left, but the thinking by the faculty at the time was that
these non-majors courses with labs drain a lot of resources from the
department, with no support from the institution. Students from that
institution aren't thought of as having a "substandard education."
The experience at my husband's institution confirms this fear of draining
resources-a good deal of the department's resources go into staffing and
supplying the hundreds of students who take Contemporary Biology and its
labs, every term and all summer. Lab fees can't cover it all. The student
newspaper rated the department as particularly hard in grading, because so
many students repeat the course the maximum number of times in order to get
the C- they need to graduate-this costs the department, because they often
have to repeat the laboratory portion as many times as well. But, as I
mentioned above-it's taught at high school level-it can't get any easier and
still be considered a college course. So while it depends on your student
body, there might be some reasons not to insist that every general education
student takes a lab course, none of them related to it's intrinsic value.
I'm interested in how other departments, large and small, handle such a
Department of Plant Pathology & Microbiology
Texas A&M University
Norman E.Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement
College Station, TX 77843