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How-To: Energize Your Classroom

Orchestrating a Successful Laboratory Activity Judy Jones

When I first started teaching science, I was dedicated to helping my students conduct investigations. The idea and practice of "inquiry learning" was strong in the sixties and that included involving students in active, hands-on learning activities. However, I was still rather overwhelmed by the idea of trying to keep 30 active adolescents eagerly involved in a lab activity while I circulated around to individual groups. Over the years, I have learned a few things -- most of them by trial and error! Here are a few tips for involving your students in a successful lab activity where THEY learn and YOU enjoy the day!

  1. Plan and Organize
    Think through the activity thoroughly. Imagine your students carrying out the procedure. Try to visualize the flow of traffic as they get supplies. It is best if you can minimize movement throughout the room. There will be less breakage of equipment and fewer opportunities for off-task behavior. Try to estimate how long each step will take. Try to anticipate where they will be confused and make sure that you clear up these trouble spots with the whole class before you begin the activity.

  2. Set Up Each Lab Station
    Make sure that each lab station has as many of the materials as possible. The more you supply at each student lab station, the less congestion you will have at central supply areas. If you need to have a central supply area, assign one student per group to get the needed supplies.

  3. Make Instructions Clear
    It is helpful to have a laboratory hand-out for each student with procedures and analysis questions. But be sure to go over the highlights of the procedure verbally. This will help you to meet the different learning styles of your students. Make your procedures very clear. Read them over and try to imagine a student understanding what you have written.

  4. Hand Out the Instructions the Day Before
    If possible, I try to give the students their lab instructions the day before the lab. Their assignment is to read the instructions, develop a hypothesis and think about what they are supposed to be learning by doing the lab. This can help the procedures go more smoothly the next day and greatly enhance the understanding of the students.

  5. Safety Is Vital
    Make sure that you follow safety procedures. Over the years, I have learned to modify labs so that my students are using small amounts of chemicals. I supply each lab station with very small amounts of the needed chemicals and supplies so that the students are not trying to pour from large dispensing flasks. Be sure to have them use goggles, aprons, or any other items that improve safety.

  6. Don't Forget the "Dollar Stores"
    I have found that I can get some very helpful items at the local "dollar store." I buy small plastic containers and trays to keep lab station supplies in. I also buy inexpensive towels and sponges for clean-up. I try to avoid using paper towels in the interest of the environment! I also buy plastic shoe boxes when they go on sale. I can keep lab supplies in them, label them clearly, and make lab preparation less of a headache. The small amount of money I spend is more than compensated for by well-organized labs.

  7. For Example:
    When my students start their microscope work, each lab station will have a small square plastic container with four dropper bottles (water, salt water, methylene blue, and iodine). In addition, there will be a supply of slides and coverslips, lens paper, and any other supplies that can be distributed. There will be a central supply area for students to get their small bits of cork, potato, Elodea, onion, yeast, etc. I always shave small pieces of cork for them so that they are not using razor blades! The microscopes are waiting for them at their lab stations. This arrangement keeps movement around the room down to a minimum. I can focus on circulating around the room and helping students with interpretation.

  8. One Last Thought.
    Over the last several years, there has been a movement toward involving students in more "open-ended" lab activities. I have found that I can take some of the prepared labs from books, manuals, and my own files, and modify them so that they require the students to develop their own experimental design. This introduces more problems with preparation. I try to anticipate what my students will be likely to need and have these items available in the central supply area. For example, I might ask my students to develop a experiment that will test the response of enzymes to temperature extremes. I provide an enzyme source, a substrate, a hot plate, test tubes, test tube clamps, ice, test tube rack, etc. It is possible to guide and predict what materials students will use. We can move toward open experimentation in small steps!


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