Making Biology Labs Happen

Yesterday after school I biked home, dropped off my bags, and immediately headed to the metro.  It was imperative that I make it to Pet Place before closing time.  I knew where to find the mealworms and found them easily.  After debating between one or two containers, I settled on two.  As I left the pet store I stopped at Blokker and Zena to additionally pick up fertilizer, antifreeze, and patio algae remover.  I couldn’t find a bag of soil before the stores closed so I made a plan to take my own bag from the bike shed, despite it’s large size.

At seven in the morning I haul the 50 kg bag of soil along with the mealworms and chemicals up to my classroom on the 3rd floor.   I set up the chemicals and soil on one side of the lab with an assortment of glassware, beakers, foam cups, stirring rods, and graduated cylinders for the students to select from.  I am glad neither of the labs today requires making solutions or excessive preparations. Opposite the collection of soil and chemicals, on another lab bench,  I place the mealworms next to a box of corn flakes.  Colleagues passing through are often disgusted by the experimental contents in my classroom and the mealworms are no exception.  “I could never do Biology” is often the phrase I hear, “It’s just so gross”.   

The IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) students tackle their lab by initially formulating their research question (How does plant fertilizer affect the height of wheat plants), hypothesis, and table of variables.  Next they outline their procedure and begin weighing out soil, counting wheat seeds, and preparing solutions with varying percentages of fertilizer.  They discuss the best method to calculate concentration of fertilizer, they debate the planting technique, and trouble shoot a method to allow drainage of water.  They analyze each step of their procedure seeking to identify whether there is a controlled variable they need to add their list, for example, the planting depth.  Finally, they place their carefully prepared experiment under the fluorescent lights.

Meanwhile (yes, these classes meet together) the IB Biology students read through their “Transfer of energy lab” procedure and immediately a ripple of “Eww”s  is heard. I hold up the containers of wriggling creatures and the  students crinkle their faces, “Do we have to touch them?”  Facing the inevitable, however, they are eventually overcome with curiosity and begin sorting their worms and weighing out the corn flakes.  Their i-phones, of course, document the entire procedure. Once the lab is set up, the students plead to be allowed to feed the turtle a mealworm.  The entire class crowds around the turtle tank with i-phones in position and a worm is dropped into the tank.  It’s as though they’re watching fire works: exclamations erupt as the turtle ingests the worm, then spits it out, and ingests it again.  After that excitement, the students settle down with the last few minutes of class to start writing up the experiment.

I delight in the experimental aspect of all my courses, as it is during those times that true wonder and discovery envelop the students.  It is when they actually grasp the scientific method and develop analytical skills.  It is worth all the unconventional things I need to find and bring into the school.  Indeed, being a Biology teacher does have its quirky side but I wouldn’t trade it for any other job!  How about you, what unusual aspect of your job do you enjoy?