How To Make Labs a Priority

The benefits of inquiry-based exploration can be attained in any classroom.

By Lynsey Peterson

Posted

Girl holding flask in science laboratory

As many teachers move through the school year, they are constantly faced with increasing pressure of high-stakes testing and new education standards. With this push for higher standards, we teachers have to work harder to continue to focus on learning outcomes rather than just testing outcomes. One possible casualty of this pressure is inquiry-based laboratory experiences. It is important to remember that labs can help children learn a variety of important skills and how to apply factual knowledge. Consider integrating inquiry and collaborative learning through labs into your curriculum.

The Importance of Labs

Working individually or in small groups for labs teaches children critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. By applying the scientific method, learners can develop authentic understandings of the world around them. These collaborative experiences also improve their abilities to cooperate with others. Developing connections with their classmates can improve self-esteem and school performance by enhancing social and behavioral health. Labs show students why they are learning certain information and give them real applications for their newly acquired knowledge. Because labs require active learning, they can even improve student performance on standardized tests. In labs, pupils are involved with creating hypotheses and experimental designs, analyzing data, and evaluating results. This makes labs a great way to engage them in higher-cognitive domains. (Source: http://www.edutopia.org/inquiry-project-learning-research)

Implementing Labs in Elementary and Middle School Classrooms

Much of the focus of elementary, and even middle school, education and assessments is on the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics. However, science labs can also be a great way to apply the principles of mathematics, critical reading, and writing. You do not need a science degree to implement labs in a classroom, nor do you need to worry about excessive safety considerations. Learners enjoy experimenting with simple, inexpensive materials. Through labs, they will be able to practice reading directions, solving problems, and learning from failed experiments. Begin with a lab activity that will reinforce parts of a story or require students to apply mathematics skills. Scripted labs with specific directions are a good start. Also try giving students a problem to solve using an experiment of their own design. Groups will use the scientific method to enhance their critical-thinking and cooperation skills. Labs will also engage challenging learners because they are active and tactile. Once your class understands what to expect, labs can be a fun activity for Friday afternoons or the day right before a school holiday.  

Increasing the Effectiveness of Labs in High School

Laboratory experiences are an essential component of high school science classes. Many states and school districts mandate that lab sciences devote at least a certain percentage of class time to labs. However, at this level, it is important to go beyond traditional labs. High schoolers need to develop and implement their own experiments. This can be more challenging for the teacher to facilitate. One way to accomplish this is to give your class a scripted lab and then have them follow it up independently using the inquiry approach. You can also try presenting an inquiry lab for students to design with certain supplies and time constraints. For biology classes, I have found photosynthesis to be a great subject for inquiry-based labs. Give the students plants and a way to measure photosynthesis rates and let them determine their own hypothesis and experimental design.

Labs at Home

Whether you are a homeschooling parent, or just a parent looking for something for your child to do on a day at home, labs can be successfully conducted at home. They do not require a full scientific laboratory. Clear plastic cups, measuring cups, and spoons can take the place of beakers and graduated cylinders. Kitchen scales work great for determining the mass of small quantities. Common household items and food can be used as experimental materials. For example, you can place red cabbage leaves in a baggie with water and massage for an instant acid-base indicator.

Make your life easier at home or in the classroom by establishing clear expectations for lab safety and clean-up procedures. You can also take experiments outside in order to limit the mess of labs. Choose the system that works best for you, but do adapt lab experiences to work in your classroom so your students don’t miss out on the benefits of labs!

Lessons:

A Valid Conclusion? Testing and Reporting on Hypotheses Using the Scientific Method

This integrates journalism and language arts with science. Middle and high school pupils work in small groups to evaluate articles about scientific studies and then apply the scientific method themselves.

Cooking Up the Scientific Method

Elementary teachers and parents who might be reluctant to try scientific explorations in their classroom, will appreciate this great idea. First graders work to understand the scientific method by applying it to cooking experiments. Adapt this plan for higher grades. 

Mystery Powders

High school students use inquiry to identify mysterious white powders. Careful observations and data records are used to compare substances with identical appearances. This resource could be easily adapted to the homeschool middle or high school learners as well.

How to Float An Egg

Here, physical science concepts are explored. Using the scientific method and inquiry skills, pupils observe the differences in the buoyancy of an egg based on the salinity of a solution. Learners of all ages can apply mathematics skills to count, measure, and calculate density during this lab.


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Lynsey Peterson