For some science teachers, working with science lab equipment conjures up thoughts of excitement, and for others, it evokes images of unmanageable equipment and a messy room. Regardless of how you feel, controlling middle school science students as they use lab equipment and ensuring safety at all times is a goal for all science teachers.
An essential part of implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which 18 states have adopted, is to use phenomena to "drive teaching and learning." This brings more opportunities for the use of science lab equipment in the classroom, and that's a bit of a curriculum shift for some teachers. This shift carries a greater need for properly managing science lab equipment in the class and following safety procedures. Keeping track of so many variables may sound daunting, especially when students wildly outnumber you, but it's doable with these tips.
Set Clear Expectations
When introducing phenomena-based activities, it's important for you and your students to have clear expectations about classroom behaviors and procedures. Students often work in groups in science classrooms, so you have to teach them how to work with each other, not just the lab equipment. A few years ago, I attended an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) conference where I obtained strategies to teach my students how to best work in a group. Build a Tower is a successful AVID strategy that I've used for several years. Students work in groups of four and have to silently build a tower out of index cards. They assume the goal of the activity is to build the best tower, but in reality, when I stop them and we reflect on the experience, students are able to determine helpful and harmful behaviors in group work. This can help you map out expectations as a class, and build a structure that ensures group activities are successful and helpful for all students.
Further reading: STEM Innovator Inspires Passion One Pumpkin at a Time
Prior to students working with lab equipment, I review rules and expectations. Any uncertainty my students may have concerning the activity can be quickly assessed with the use of green, yellow, and red index cards. Students raise a green card if they're ready to begin, a yellow card if they have a quick clarification question, or a red card if they're confused. I scan the room and immediately know where my attention is needed the most. Safety issues concerning both the science lab equipment itself and the well-being of students are critical. I have safety posters that were created by students hung around the room, and these are constant reminders of safety procedures. Safety contracts, which parents and students sign, are also beneficial to ensuring that students understand that safety is imperative at all times.
Have a Sharing System with Colleagues
You'll need to maintain control over consumable supplies used for science labs and activities. If you and your colleagues don't have a good structure in place, a need for essentials, such as toothpicks, baking soda, straws, cups, chemicals, etc., may mean taking a trip to the store the night before the lab. Here are some things I've found to be useful when sharing lab equipment with other teachers:
- Keep supplies in a central location and check the stock a week before supplies are needed to remove any chance of chaos.
- Keep a list posted on the supply cabinet to record when supplies were borrowed and by whom.
- Don't hesitate to ask for a replacement.
- If there's only one school/class set of hot plates or downhill racers, be sure to communicate use ahead of time.
- Coordinate who will be using which lab equipment and when.
Keep a Cool Head
There will be times when items are broken. I find it best to remain patient; it helps to keep the room calm and the students appreciate my understanding. If it's safe to do so, I have students clean up the accident, the relevant parties apologize, I smile, and we all move on. At my school, students are expected to replace larger items, like beakers, graduated cylinders, or flasks, so I send a note home stating what occurred in class and the cost of the replacement piece. Usually, this isn't an issue, but if there's a financial hardship, other arrangements can be made—helping me clean the other glassware is always an option.
Further reading: A Guide to Implementing Science Notebooks
Phenomena are useful for shifting the students' learning away from "Why do I need to learn this?" and toward "I need to figure out how or why this works!" I've found that having control over the lab equipment and a culture of safety in the classroom has allowed me more time to give students the tools to answer their driving questions. The end result is their motivation to learn about the world around them. So when I look around my classroom and see 45 sets of bean-growing cases, I don't see a mess. I see surprised faces when the once-thought "dead" beans are germinating. I see more experiments based on questions. I see a shift. I see success.