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Taking Students to the Laboratory? How to Plan and Execute the Perfect Lab Activity.

Use this teacher checklist when planning ANY lab activity!

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a small group of science teachers in an inservice-type situation.  The group ranged in their teaching experience. Some were brand new teachers, while others had a few years under their belt.  None were what I would call "knowledgeable veterans." As our time together progressed, it quickly became obvious to me that these teachers needed help with "the lab."  For the inexperienced science teacher, "the lab" can be a scary and potentially dangerous place.

There seems to be a diverse spectrum in science teaching in regard to the laboratory.  At one extreme end of the spectrum are the teachers whose fear of the lab prevents them from ever taking a group of students into the lab.  At the opposite extreme are the science teachers who forge blindly ahead without giving thought to a set of basic guidelines and procedures concerning laboratory activities.  To be fair, I have certainly just described polar opposites in science teachers.  Almost all science teachers will fall in the middle somewhere, and all of us could use a refresher course when it comes to taking students into the lab.

After giving this topic much thought, I have developed a "Laboratory Checklist" of items we science teachers need to consider before taking our classes into the lab.

Begin with a very easy test by asking yourself two simple questions:

1.  Is this lab activity age appropriate?  All science students need to be challenged with activities that are appropriate for their age, and that push them to the next level of critical thinking and problem solving.

2.  Does this lab meet an educational goal or objective? (Pardon me, while I get up on my soapbox...)  The lab activity must meet an educational objective or goal.  There has to be a REASON for doing the lab. The lab should be related to the concepts being taught in the classroom, and should reinforce and/or further the student's understanding of those concepts.

If you can answer "yes" to both of these questions, then proceed with the lab. If you answer "no" to one or both of these questions, you should throw out the lab idea and look for another, more appropriate, lab activity.

Assuming that the lab has met the standards posed by the first two questions, it is time to plan the lab activity.  Consider the following items before lab day arrives.

3.  Safety First!  The safety of the students should be your first thought when planning a lab activity. Are the items on the materials list appropriate for your students?  Think long and hard about the potential hazards of the lab, and identify the areas in which an accident might be possible. (It is assumed that you carried out lab safety instruction with students in the first week of school!)  In planning your lab activity, identify areas of concern and develop a plan of action in the event of an accident.

4.  Using chemicals?  Read the MSDS!!  A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) should be on hand for every chemical you use in the lab. When chemicals are ordered, each will arrive with an MSDS.  Read each page and place them in a three-ring binder for easy and immediate access.  This binder should always be present in the lab.  The MSDS will alert you to any dangers associated with the chemical, and list first aid instructions in the event they are needed.

5.  Carry out the lab yourself before trying it out with the students!  Teachers who are doing the lab for the first time in the presence of students are asking for trouble.  By carrying out the experiment prior to lab day, the teacher can:   (1) Make sure that all equipment and supplies are on hand and in good working order, (2) Identify the problem areas in which students will need to be alerted,  (3) Determine if the experiment will actually work, (4) Look for alternative supplies if needed, and (5) Make any adjustments needed in the lab procedural steps.

6.  How much time will the lab take?  If students finish the lab experiment quickly, no problem!  They can spend the remaining minutes cleaning their lab area and preparing their lab reports.  But what will you do if class time runs out before students can finish the experiment?  This will surely happen on some lab days.  Have a plan.

7.  How will you set up the lab stations and/or the supply area?  An effective and meaningful lab runs like clockwork.  Identify the traffic flow problems beforehand and set up the supply areas in a way that reduces student traffic jams. You may decide that each lab station should be supplied with every item needed for the experiment, or it may work better to have a general supply area that students go to for the items they need.  No two labs are the same.  Identify the best solution for each lab.

Once steps 3 - 7 have been checked off, you are ready to take the kids to the lab.  The following items on the checklist will ensure that your lab activity is a huge success!

8.  Provide the students with written instructions.  Students must receive lab handouts that clearly identify the safety precautions and the exact procedure for the experiment. Giving oral instructions that reinforce the information on the lab handout is okay, great even.  Giving oral instructions instead of providing a lab handout?  NOT okay.

9.  Always schedule pre-lab time. During the pre-lab time, provide the students with the lab handouts they will be using during the lab.  Go over your expectations for the lab, and explain what is to be accomplished by doing the lab.  You may want to use a "Pre-Lab Worksheet" as a homework assignment so that students will be prepared on lab day.  Review the lab safety rules for each and every lab!

10.  How will you group the students?  There is no correct answer to this question.  Should you allow the students to choose their own partners?  Should you place students in groups of YOUR choosing?  Should you have groups of 2 or 4?  Every lab is different.  You know your students and you know what you can expect from them.  One class may be mature enough to allow you to let the students choose their own partner, while this would never work in another class.  I sometimes allow students to choose their own groups, but I most often choose the student groups myself.  At the beginning of the school year I place the name of each student on an index card.  Prior to the lab activity I place these index cards at the lab stations.  As the students enter the room they look for their card.  This allows me to quickly and easily place students in lab groups.  Life lessons are also learned by having students work in a different group each lab period.

11.  Monitor and keep a watchful eye during the lab.  There will be many students in the lab, and there will only be one of you.  You must be confident that you can control and manage the class in situations involving chemicals, sharp items, glassware, hot plates / Bunsen burners, etc.  Do not carry out a lab activity if the equipment and supplies being used causes you worry. Simply find another lab activity.  During the lab activity, be vigilant in monitoring and interacting with the students.  You are the person in the room that has the ability to ward off and prevent accidents from occurring.

12.  Allow enough time at the end of the class for students to clean up their lab station.  At 5 minutes before the bell, the lab activity must end. If students are still working, you must instruct them to stop, and begin their clean up procedures. You do not want the students in the next class to walk in and see a huge mess. You want the next class to walk in and see a highly efficient and organized lab set up. It sets the tone. It makes a difference.

13.  Be timely in breaking down the lab.  As a courtesy to your fellow science teachers who use the same lab, make sure to break down your lab quickly so the lab will be ready to use by the next person. Wash the glassware, wipe down the lab tables, put away all equipment, and make sure to dispose of chemicals correctly.  Your team mates will be most appreciative!

14.  Make an assessment plan.  How are you going to evaluate the work done by the students on the lab activity?   Will they write a lab report? Will there be lab questions on the upcoming chapter test?  Will there be a lab quiz?  Assessment is an important part of the process.  It tells the student that the activity was important.  If you never give a grade, lab report, or take any type of assessment on the lab activity, it sends the message that lab activities are just "fun times / free times."  This will lead to horseplay and behavior problems on future lab activities.

15.  Make a plan for students who are absent on lab day.  I wish I could offer the perfect solution to this problem.  If you have developed a plan of action that works, please let the rest of us know.  The simple truth is that when students are absent, they have missed valuable instruction time that cannot be recovered.  I have scheduled lab make up days after school, given alternate assignments, and given absent students sample data to analyze.  I am still looking for a better solution.  Any thoughts?

Lab days are my favorite days at school.  Being proactive and organized in your approach to lab activities will ensure that your day is smooth, and that students are highly engaged in the learning process.

Happy Lab Day!