When you teach science, you have all of the issues associated with technical subjects like mathematics, you must deal with reading and writing as in ELA, and science even has a societal context like history. However, unlike all of those, it also has a laboratory component.
Delivering an excellent laboratory experience to students takes lots more effort. Aside from scheduling, equipment, and expendables issues, you have to plan the experience so that students don’t merely learn to use equipment or simply obtain a result that they were told ahead of time.
The true purposes of science laboratory experiences must include learning to think scientifically, understanding the nature of science, and appreciating the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. It goes far beyond “See for yourself that what I said is true.”
Ensuring that all of this happens means that you, the science teacher, must carefully plan what will happen in the lab for every student and then execute that plan. Afterward, you should have a discussion with students about what happened, what they saw, and what they may have learned. That discussion can be as important as the lab experience itself.
With limited budgets, reduced time for instruction, and ever-increasing safety issues, it’s not easy to deliver great experiences. Some teachers have reluctantly resorted to online animated simulations to replace some lab experiences. These solve the time, money, and safety issues but toss out those essential learning aspects. After all, students in these exercises are investigating equations, not the real world. It’s as though the sun were squinting through the clouds, losing most of its impact on the world below.
Here are some principles you can use in designing your laboratory investigations:
Use real experiments that take place in the real world and, when possible, have relevancy.
Have students make their own measurements one point at a time so that they truly “own” the data.
Keep the end result from students so that they truly are investigating something that may be mysterious.
Discuss closely related material, and ask relevant questions beforehand to prepare students without giving away the result students will discover.
Host a discussion afterward that includes penetrating questions about the experience and allows students to share their insights.
Give every student the opportunity to Inquire – Explore – Discover!
Real world online experiments gain the benefits of simulations without losing the benefits of real experiments. Remote robotic labs do this but in a manner that delivers data sets to students on a “silver platter.” Why not just hand them the data? These remote labs lose the engagement aspect of learning for all but the most advanced students.
Ideally, your students will work with experiments in the real world and will work through a full 5E-style unit that ensures optimal learning from the experience. They should have resources such as vocabulary and background information at their fingertips and a built-in online notebook.
Your students should write a lab “report” online in a consistent format that is easy for you to grade and that will include all of the data taken by the students for your review and without the potential for doing a “dry lab.”
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