HS Biology

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?

My relationship with the laminating machine: student engagement

I used to think the laminating machine was just for elementary teachers.  They have all those fun and colorful things for their cute and cuddly youngsters and we, in the secondary school just don’t.

Last year I participated, as part of Professional Development at our school, in an EAL certification program.  During the course we were presented with all sorts of creative ideas to help the language learners in our classes.  Furthermore we were expected to trial the ideas with our students and follow up with a reporting of the results.  I took the challenge seriously and quickly came to the understanding that these activities were truly “best practices” benefitting all learners in the class.  However, I wasn’t convinced that my IB students would “buy into” such activities, I mean, really, handling laminated cards and arranging the process of antibody production on the tabletops?  I was dead wrong.  Even my Year 2 IB students delighted in the exercises and claimed that such hands-on activities helped them learn.  Thus, I’ve incorporated these type of practices into all of my units.  Wanting to preserve the material for future use, I decided to laminate.  I experienced a feeling of “initiation” and empowerment as I joined my elementary colleagues at the laminating machine.  In the meantime I have collected several binders full of laminated activities. 

Today I used one of my laminated projects on my high school biology students.  In an effort to introduce them to the topic of the chemistry of life that has a load of vocabulary I pulled out the laminated vocabulary squares.   Each pair of students received a stack of cards, half containing bolded vocabulary words and the other half with the corresponding definition or match (i.e. the structure of glucose or a lipid or an amino acid).  The students immediately spread the cards out seeking words they could identify. Discussions of roots and possible meanings ensued.  Communications of reasoning and logic followed.  During this time, I easily assessed any prior knowledge the students had.

Once the students were stumped, I allowed them to consult their book.  Captivated and animated the students immersed themselves in the text reading paragraphs to each other, deciphering meaning and identifying further matches.  Once they “were done” they quizzed each other and additionally mixed up the cards to try again.  I was able to circulate and informally assess how each student's progress through questioning and low-pressure quizzing.  They smiled and laughed as they stretched their brains for understanding and committing content to memory.

With plenty of time left, the class was prepared to begin the lab on chemical testing of certain molecules found in foods.  Thanks to our introductory activity, they were already approaching this task with scientific language and a basic knowledge that will aid them in understanding the lab.

As the students donned their aprons and goggles, I happily placed my laminated treasures back in their designated pocket in the HS binder.  My association with the laminating machine has paid off once again.  Do you have any good ideas that have worked for you or heard your children describe or remember from your own schooling experience?  Please share below!