More than one older teacher raised eyebrows and objections in my department when word got out I was letting my biology freshmen and sophomores operate bunsen burners. Did I know what I was doing?! Could the kids really handle it?!
Yes, and yes! Here’s the thing: I am unsure of myself often as a young science teacher, but this year, my students—all of them, every level of them—are wonderful in the lab. It surprises me sometimes, because in my first year, they were not always wonderful in the lab. Either my kids are uniformly better this year in every class (possible) or I learned something from last year (more likely).
The lab I’m in the middle of right now, calorimetry, is the biggest test of my lab supervision abilities and my students’ lab work. There are a lot of moving pieces—open flame, tasty foods that are strictly off limits, digital balances at risk of being stolen, lots of hot glass, tricky quantitative analysis, and procedure writing. It’s been smooth sailing for two days now. Here’s how I do it.
- Long-range planning. The first lab of the year needs to be engaging and simple. It should take no more than half of your total class time. This lab is as much for them to learn your lab expectations as it is for them to learn content. Plan for half a class period so that you can take your time in communicating procedures related to safety, workspace, and clean-up. You don’t want to run out of clean up time for Lab #1, or they’re going to think that clean up isn’t part of lab. Labs should get more complex as the year goes on, as the content allows.
- Expectations/procedures. My students can rattle off my lab expectations easily. Safety is first. To emphasize this, and to save some time/minimize movement, I distribute goggles to all my groups before anyone leaves their desk. Students in my room sit at numbered tables for lecture and numbered lab benches for lab. The numbers match and they always go to the same place. Clean-up is required—when their bench is clean, I personally sign their lab notebook. No signature = 0 on lab. For real. And they know it. This isn’t as big a hassle as it sounds—groups all finish at different times, so there are rarely kids waiting in line for a signature. The clean-up procedure is always written into the lab procedure. There’s always a post-lab of independent questions, so if students finish early they have something to work on immediately. If students finish later, then they have homework. Requiring students to read a procedure is a personal mission of mine. I refuse to answer procedure questions in the lab. If they need help interpreting the instructions, I help, but if they ask me how much water to use or what to set the hot plate to, my answer is “Read your procedure.” I start out with that during Lab #1, and by Lab #4 or Lab #5 procedural questions pretty much dry up.
Minimizing movement in the lab is key. As much as you can, have all the stuff in one place for each group so that kids aren’t backed up waiting for reagents and no one has to move/carry stuff across the lab. I keep aprons at the stations so that students don’t bunch up at the apron hooks.
- Rigor. Labs are not free days. This is the first conversation I have with my students. If you believe that the lab your students are doing is integral to their understanding of the content (and it is, otherwise you’re not doing it, right?), then treat it as serious business. My students are required to make up labs they miss. My first lab, measurement, takes me longer to grade than any other lab because I go through it with a fine-tooth comb and write copious comments. The average is usually less than 15 out of 20, even for my gifted students. I don’t believe in setting students up for failure, but I do want them to know from the first week that I grade labs with the same attention that I grade tests. It’s important. Labs are also fair game for tests in my class. It’s not that I don’t want them to enjoy lab—I do, and they do enjoy my labs, by and large—but I want them to understand that labs serve an important academic purpose.
- Pre-lab. I don’t usually set a pre-lab assignment, though I think I will starting next quarter. But I do make an effort to anticipate questions/concerns/common errors before we start. With the Bunsen burners, I set one up on my demo table and showed them how you can’t really see the flame, and how you can get burned by the air above the flame, etc. It worked like a charm—they were so scared of the burners by the time we started I didn’t have to worry about them horsing around (also, there was only one lighter in the room, and it lived in my pocket, and I threatened them with referrals and zeroes). Scare tactics on safety are absolutely best, and I rely on real life lab accidents I’ve witnessed (spilling boiling oil, catching shirts on fire, etc) to convince my students that I’m serious. I always show them new equipment before we get started, and I show them schematics of the final set-up if appropriate.
- Modeling. If my students are in goggles, I am too. When my kids are in aprons, my lab coat is on. My hair is tied back. And I am in the lab with them, circulating, asking questions, correcting, prodding. I’m present, and I’m serious, and I work to bring them back to the content while they’re doing lab work.
The calorimetry lab has been a blast so far, and my students have been neat, careful, and thoughtful. Which is good, because it’s a 65 point assignment and they will absolutely be tested on it in the near future.
Feel free to drop me an ask if you want more detail on how I run labs in my classroom.