5 Smart ways to run Science Labs when you’re Teaching Remotely

The epidemic threatened to put one of the most engaging components of the curriculum like lab work out of reach for middle and high school science instructors. Without access to school resources and equipment, how would kids obtain a safe, realistic experience completing hands-on experiments, as well as the in-person direction of professors, so they could more profoundly learn scientific ideas and concepts?

Many instructors, particularly those in rural or high-poverty areas, were concerned that giving home lab work would unfairly penalize some kids. “My main issue with remote laboratories is equity—not all students have access to the same equipment. I have a huge student population, and I have a lot of materials,” biology instructor Lee Ferguson in Allen, Texas, told us. “Given our limits, we have to make sure that the experience we provide for youngsters is as egalitarian as possible.”

Many instructors established innovative, imaginative techniques to encourage experiential learning at home. It’s been a challenge, they say, and it’s not the same as being together in the classroom, but “kids are always remarkably resilient,” according to Jimmy Newland, a physics and astronomy instructor in Houston. 

Cris Chacon, a physics instructor in Golden, Colorado, was pleasantly pleased by how involved and creative his pupils got with at-home laboratories, stating that they appreciated being able to work at their speed and having time to “really connect with and explore their interest.” According to Jodie Deinhammer, a science teacher in Coppell, Texas, when the classroom and teacher scaffolding was removed, her kids’ confidence began to build. “They’re experimenting and learning via trial and error,” she explained.

Here are five ways that middle and high school science professors are bringing science laboratories to life for students who are learning remotely.

1. GETTING STUDENTS TO USE WHAT’S ALREADY IN THE HOUSE

Houston physics, chemistry, and geology instructor Jon Bergmann devised a lesson plan that included cups, markers, paper towels, and food coloring. His pupils scattered pepper into bathtubs or plastic bins filled with water and tipped over measuring cups in the water as stand-ins for “islands” in the “ocean” for a study exploring ocean currents. Bergmann’s pupils, who are required to videotape their at-home labs while explaining their work to a parent or guardian, “have been quite inventive,” he says.

David Peterson, a high school chemistry and physics teacher in British Columbia, Canada, presented a three-part baking assignment to his students to explore stoichiometric relationships. Students first prepared baking powder biscuits using a recipe that stated components by mass, which they had to convert to volume values. Then they scaled down the recipe and made the biscuits once again. “The idea is to make biscuits that taste exactly like the ones before,” Peterson explained. “There were a few hiccups, but most people could figure out what went wrong with the taste test.” In the third section, Peterson instructed pupils to prepare shortbread cookies with “no more than X amount of butter, Y amount of sugar, and Z amount of flour.” “Our objective is to bake as many cookies as we can.”

Deinhammer led her seventh-grade life science students outside for observation and data collecting labs after her kids went remote, opting for a citizen science approach. They gathered cicadas from near their houses and then measured, magnified, and photographed them on school-issued iPads. They published their findings acquired by students from throughout the country and “analyzed the data together to uncover patterns, similarities, or outliers.”

2. MAKING TAKE-HOME KITCHEN KITS

Logan Gaddy, high school math and science instructional coach told us that at the outset of the remote school year, chemistry instructors at her Ennis, Texas, the high school created basic, safe lab kits that students could pick up and finish at home. The kits included home-safe equipment and did not require electronic scales or other gadgets that the school could not allow outside of the classroom. PTC paper was supplied in biology kits, for example, “so students could test to see whether they possessed a specific genetic variant.” Kits for an iron oxidation chemical lab comprised hydrogen peroxide, salt, and non-galvanized nails or iron filings.

Take-home kits can be a strategy to keep all students performing exciting scientific lab work at home during a school year when the epidemic has accentuated the deep and chronic educational unfairness of the digital divide.

3. MANUFACTURING LIVE OR RECORDED LABS

Mika Hunter Twietmeyer, a biology teacher in Durham, North Carolina, has been using Zoom this year to provide live lab demonstrations so her students may “gather data together and engage in inquiry in a more real context.” Twietmeyer designed a murder mystery lab for a recent honors biology class in which students used chemicals to “screen for distinct macromolecules in a sample of stomach contents,'” she said. “We looked for carbohydrates, simple sugars, lipids, and proteins in the material.”

Students should be informed in advance so that they can capture their data. She begins her Zoom labs with a quick introduction and a series of pre-lab questions that students answer in breakout rooms. She next goes through lab safety practices and explains the lab’s contents and equipment. She offers low-stakes inquiries such as, “What am I meant to do next?” to keep them interested. She sends students back into breakout rooms to study the data and answer final questions after the class has collected it. “I get the impression that the students love the laboratories,” Twietmeyer says, but just to be sure, she conducts a Google Sheets poll with questions such as, “What components of the lab did you appreciate the most?” and “What did you enjoy the least?” or mistake into his laboratories as much as students may accidentally do when completing labs in the classroom. Biology and physics instructor Matthew Simmons of Bedford, Texas, videotaped versions of his labs that included “some sort of error,” he told us. He intended to lead pupils to “a bit more analysis, contemplation, and another idea.” “Many times, scientists make discoveries by accident—how could I make that happen in my laboratories?” Simmons wanted his labs to seem like real-world scientific work for his pupils.

4. ONLINE SIMULATIONS BE PROVIDED

Several instructors expressed interest in online simulation resources such as PhET, a free program from the University of Colorado that delivers interactive, game-like simulations for physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, and math classes. The purpose of the PhET activities is to give students an open-ended exploratory environment in which they may engage with science subjects in the same way as scientists do.

For example, an earth science simulation on glaciers lets students change and record mountain snowfall and temperatures to witness a glacier develop and shrink. A biology simulation on stretching DNA allows students to experiment with optical tweezers or fluid flow to stretch a single strand of DNA. “Experiment with the forces at work and assess the link between the stretched DNA.” The simulation describes the length and the force necessary to keep it stretched.” “Does DNA behave more like a rope or a spring?” A chemical simulation allows students to “construct” an atom out of protons, neutrons, and electrons to “watch how the element, charge, and mass change,” and then play a game to put their theories to the test.

Chacon, a physics instructor, utilizes PhET simulations to allow his pupils to “manipulate digital tools and variables to observe natural processes.” Students may alter inputs and settings to obtain data that can be examined “like an in-person lab,” according to Chacon.

5. GIVING STUDENTS ACCESS TO VARIABLES THROUGH INTERACTIVE VIDEOS

Several professors told us that they use Pivot Interactives as another method that encourages student variable manipulation. Pivot, which costs $5 per student per year, provides a collection of movies including live experiments in which students may conduct measurements and evaluate data immediately on the web. A photosynthesis biology lab, for example, allows students to measure carbon dioxide levels to calculate the rate of photosynthesis of a basil plant growing under colored lights. Students can change the tangential speed, radius, and mass of a spinning cylinder for a physics lab on the variables that determine centripetal force.

“It’s not a simulation [tool],” said David Eckstrom, a physics and chemistry instructor in Hayward, Wisconsin. Instead, “students are almost like remote-controlling an actual lab that is operated by real personnel.” Students use genuine measurement instruments to take accurate measurements. Once students have decided what they want to modify, Pivot will show them a video of “someone gathering actual data with an experimental setup,” according to Ferguson, the biology instructor. “Students can then record the created data, process it using suitable mathematical operations, and analyze and evaluate the findings.”

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