Whether you homeschool or teach science in a or co-op setting, science labs remain mysterious and intimidating to some. In fact, some teachers shy away from them completely, denying their students an important part of science education. The laboratory experience is just one of the approaches to teaching science, but improving this part of your science curriculum can be the key to how to become a better elementary science teacher or a high school science coach. Begin to look at labs as “teaching fun science” and you and your students will have a much better experience. In this report are six tips to help you improve your labs regardless if you teach 5th grade science or college biology.
Preparing Lab Sections
The most important thing you can do to insure success is to be prepared for the lab or experiment. This is so simple and obvious that it is often overlooked. Don’t just gather your materials for the lab you are working on the next day, but look well into the future. Look over your plans for the month or the semester to see if there are any unusual items that need to be found. As you finish one lab, look to the next scheduled lab and make sure the materials will be on hand. Do you need to make ice? Is all of the equipment working properly? An alternative is to gather everything you will need in advance or order a complete science kit for the curriculum you are using. Everything can be stored in a plastic box with a lid and kept in one place.
Perform the Lab in Advance
If at all possible, perform the lab in advance of your student. There is never a guarantee that the experiment is going to work out as it is written and you will want to be prepared to answer questions in case it doesn’t. If you can’t work out the experiment in advance, at least read through the entire procedure. Work out any calculations and answer the questions as the students will as they read through the manual. Familiarize yourself with the equipment they will be using. While you don’t want to take over the lab for them, you do want to be a prepared coach.
Read and Study the Theory Behind the Lab
If you are familiar with the theory behind the experiment, then you will be much more effective when handling conceptual questions the students may have. If you do not have a strong science background, read the student text that corresponds with the lab. Having an understanding of this background will also help you to explain the relevance of this lab to the content the students are learning. Students need to understand relevance, both in the technique they are using and in the application of the information being learned.
Preparing the Student
If the student only has a hazy recollection of the lesson from the text or lecture, he will probably not understand the application of the lab. Have him review notes or highlights in the book before beginning the lab. Have a conversation about what the lab is about and the concepts he will be testing or observing. Have him read through the entire activity before he begins to make sure he understands both the technique and application.
The discussion that takes place after the lab can be just as important as the activity itself. Begin by reviewing the questions in the manual, if there are any. Ask students to define their terms or expound their ideas by asking, “What do you mean by ______?” or “Could you explain ______ to me?” If you are doing an activity that does not have discussion questions, simply use the same questions to lead a discussion about the lab. You should refrain from giving advice or outright answers. Most students know that if they remain quiet, a parent or teacher will eventually offer the answer for them. Instead, lead them into thinking for themselves by asking a series of questions. “What do you think?” is often a good way to get a conversation started. Your face should remain expressionless, for a student who is reluctant to answer will shy away if he thinks you will criticize or reject his answer. If he is going down the wrong path, just lead him down the correct one with questioning. This is an excellent teaching method for getting students to explain concepts in their own words.
The same approach is used during an experiment. At times, something goes wrong and the student exclaims, “What did I do wrong?!” It is so tempting to jump in and help when we see his mistake, but unless you let him work it out on his own, he will only increase his chances of failure at the same point during the next experiment. Instead, have him carefully review the lab procedure step by step and see if he made any errors in sequence, timing, proportions, or interpretation. The only assistance you should offer is in the form of leading questions to get him on the right track, but let him make the discovery on his own. This approach often frustrates students, but they will learn far more in the long run.
Videos are common supplements for science. Because it is so widely used for entertainment, most students are used to viewing it passively. We need to change their viewing habits if it is to be an effective tool in an educational setting. To begin with, discuss the reason for watching the video and explain how it relates to the lesson or lab. In a sense, you are preparing the students and telling them what you want them to learn from the video. You can even ask them any discussion questions before you watch the video with the intent of having the students glean the answers from the presentation. Don’t be afraid to stop the video during play to discuss any points of interest that may come up. Afterwards, have the students answer discussion question, repeat five things they have learned, or complete a short writing assignment about the video.
Slides are another useful science supplement. In a homeschool setting, it may be a microscope slide set; in a classroom, it could be an overhead projector or slide show. No matter the presentation, slides are the perfect format for encouraging observation skills. Consider having each student keep a science journal for drawing specimens. Let them draw what they see for a few minutes. When they are done with their initial sketches, instruct them to look again and draw for a few more minutes. Some may complain, “But I don’t see anything else.” Do not engage in a lengthy debate, just instruct them again to look, study, and draw some more. When they are done, have them repeat the study and drawing exercise for a third time. In the beginning, this is a truly difficult activity for students with weak observation skills. Gently encourage them to add just one more detail each time they draw. Soon, they will gain confidence and find more details each time they study. They will also realize that you are not asking them to stare and draw indefinitely, but for just a short period of a few minutes.