Classroom Management: Lab Testing

Last November I reported on some classroom management issues I was having. I wrote about challenging my students with a lab that supposedly exceeded their capabilities (click here to read that post), hoping that the students would learn content and simultaneously become more engaged in the classroom. This approach required exceeding readiness on my part. Since the students’ lab skills were still lacking, everything needed to be prepared ahead of time so that their actual hands-on component would be relatively simple.  My efforts proved worthwhile because, in the end, the students stepped up to the task, learning content and become more serious minded.

However, basic science experiments were still required in order to develop student lab skills. A simple conservation of mass experiment could provide just such an opportunity along with an introduction to content. However, it would be difficult for them to complete it without being silly. They would play with the balloons and chatter and goof around because the lab would seem too easy to warrant their concentration. In the end, I feared they would neither gain the lab skills I was aiming for nor learn the content associated with the lab.

A last-minute stroke of inspiration came: make it an assessment of following directions. I sprang into action as this tactic would also necessitate significant set-up. I had to place students into a testing environment and ensure they could individually perform the experiment. Tables were arranged around the room in a circle so I could stand in the middle and students could work without knowing whether I was looking at them or not. Each seat was equipped with a balloon, a graduated cylinder, vinegar, baking soda and the lab instructions. They would only need to stand to use the measuring scales.

Before entering the room, students were warned that as soon as they crossed the threshold they were in a testing situation. Backpacks were set down at the front of the room and personal computers retrieved. Interest peaked by the unusual set-up, the pupils approached the tables with hushed respect.

First, an online quiz covering content from the previous days was completed. This settled them down right from the start.Then, as instructed, the students moved straight into the practical part of their quiz. Huge emphasis was placed on the fact that this practical portion was part of their assessment. This new approach instigated total silence among the group. Working at different paces from each other, no one needed the scales at the same time. Not a sound was heard when chairs were scooted away and towards the tables. No pushing, giggling, touching, or silliness. Complete silence. Total focus. If I had had a pin to drop, it we would have heard it.

The inherent nature of this set-up actually forced the students to read the instructions. Each person was required to conduct measurements with the graduated cylinder and weighing scale. Everyone was in a serious-minded setting gaining experience in how an experiment should be conducted.  And, unable to consult peers,  the students were coerced into studying and answering the questions connecting the activity to content in this arrangement of a testing situation.

As usual, I advocate thinking outside the box as we seek to meet our students’ needs in the classroom! In this case, both skills and content were attained as measured through later assessment. And, in a review session conducted last week (and months after this activity), formative assessment revealed that most of them had retained what they learned that day. Most importantly, a foundation was laid for how one conducts oneself in the lab, thwarting a tendency for silly behavior and creating an environment more conducive to learning.

Uncomplicated but poignant activities

It was a simple idea. It’s possible they’ve even done it before in another class sometime during their education. However, I knew they would learn from it and would thereby approach the learning objectives. So, I prepared the materials.

The instructions, accompanied by an image, were simple: build a model of the ventilation system. The building part was easy and fun. With their hands and minds engaged, they were hooked and as the more challenging part of the activity faced them, they plowed ahead. With the expectations for the write-up in front of them, they reached for the models again and again, seeking deeper understanding. They discussed. They questioned. They pointed. They pulled.


“Oh, I get it” followed by an explanation of the role of air pressure in breathing.

“So, when the diaphragm contracts, the thorax expands.”

“The intercostal muscles are located here and contract and expand with the diaphragm”

Soon everyone in the room can accurately and biologically describe inspiration and expiration. And all it took were some plastic bottles and balloons.

VALUE the power of simple.

Later in the day the health teacher and I were comparing curriculum since we share students who are doing a unit on the respiratory system in both health and biology. He began to describe an activity he had completed with the students and then hesitated, “Oh, it was nothing. It was so simple” he says, almost discrediting the activity because it was simple. “The students were handed a straw and told to run up and down the stairs using only the straw with which to breathe in and out.  He continued, “But they really got it. As they came up the stairs, they described feeling panicked, even though they knew they could remove the straw. Suddenly they had a real idea as to what it would mean to have emphysema."

Today as we continued our learning about the structures of the ventilation system, I asked those same students about what would happen if the airways were constricted. They immediately piped in what they knew about emphysema. They added their experience in the stairways and I asked them what they learned from that. The response was unanimous, “Now I know how it might feel like to have emphysema.” And all it took was a straw.

VALUE the power of simple.

Recently a colleague came to me and said, “I think I need to change the way I teach. I’m too lecture based and I need more activity driven lessons” and then she followed up with an overwhelming description of what that might look like. She had grand but complicated ideas that would require hours of prep time, a luxury she does not have.  “Simple goes a long way” was my advice. “What do you mean?” she queried. “Look at this gap activity – students simply matching concepts with descriptions” but it engages them. We brainstormed a bit and she came up with a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s so brilliant that I’ll be borrowing and reporting on it someday! She ran back to her room and produced the activity in about ten minutes.  And all it takes is a story problem and a stack of paper cut-outs with words to enable hands-on, engaged processing of the problem.

VALUE the power of simple.

Be empowered by uncomplicated ideas. Think outside the box but look inside the box (i.e. your classroom) for your supplies. 

Fostering scientific creativity, before the IB years!

The lab is abuzz with activity. Various experiments are taking place at every lab bench in the room.

“Um, do you think I should use the large filter or the small filter?”

My reply is coupled with a smile, “That’s your call” Every subsequent question receives the same response.

It is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Internal Assessment (IA) time for seniors. At this point  in their educational journey, students are supposed to be independent enough to simply design and run their experiments. As teachers we are no longer allowed to provide input or guidance. Not even guided questions. And it takes a lot of control. Sometimes I literally have to bite my tongue and watch as obvious flaws in the experiment ensue.

Today, however, I had the grand luxury of giving some 10th graders freedom in troubleshooting a design for their lab on testing for photosynthesis.

Together we had studied the set-up of an initially faulty and cumbersome design. The students were given access to a cart of supplies from the lab. Their instructions were to come up with an experimental set-up that would work for them and provide the results they were looking for. Oh, how creative these students were!

“Do you have some sticky tack?” one student queries.  Well, that’s not on the cart but I love that he is thinking beyond the supplies on the cart and I rummage through my desk drawers to find the item he seeks. Upon seeing the huge glob in my hands he exclaims, “Oh yes, that’s perfect!” Triumphantly he bends over his plant with his lab partner and begins to assemble his idea.

When students asked for input, unlike with the IB IA experiments, I can actually provide guiding questions to help them reach the best decision. It’s so freeing and it reminds me why I enjoy teaching all levels of science. There is something absolutely thrilling about fostering scientific creativity in students.

Each pair of students deliberates and collaborates to come up with a unique idea. Questions abound. Cabinets are searched. Glassware is examined. Yes, it’s chaotic. Yes, it’s busy. Yes, it’s messy. However, how amazing to view the different designs that result! Clearly this is more constructive and interesting than telling the students what to do!

Don’t be afraid to free the students. It will take you and them on a glorious journey!

Becoming a Scientist

It’s how you think.

The gas flame hissed at full height while a pot sat precariously askew on the burner. There, at eye level to the flame and pot stood my little 5-year old son.  He was trying to stabilize the pot with one hand while clutching a partially filled balloon in the grimy damp fingers of his other hand.  Sweat dripped from his temples as he focused intently on his task.  He didn’t even notice me approaching his hazardous situation.

“What are you doing?”

He looks up at me with his big, open, intense blue eyes. Maintaining his grip on pot and balloon he explains, “Trying to figure something out”.  I help him with the pot as he continues; “You know how when you have a balloon in the hot car it pops?  Well, I want to know if that has to do with the heat of the car. “

We study his experimental set-up and he adds, “The balloon should get bigger if I put it in the hot water”

And there it was. The inherent curiosity. The desire to know. The determination to find out. The pursuit of a test. A formed hypothesis. It wasn’t something we taught him. It was just there.

Of course, with my guidance he completed his experiment and jumped with joy when that balloon began to expand.  He loved the idea of air molecules speeding up so fast to take up more space and pushing on the sides of the balloon to make it look like it was “filling up”. 

“If we take it out now, it will shrink again, right?”  Of course, we did it.

It seems his entire childhood was spent in testing the world. As an adult this son continues to think like a scientist, answering everyday life’s questions using the scientific method. He can’t help it. I know, because I’m the same way. 

However, not everyone thinks this way.  I see it all the time in the classroom. One student sits in a stupor while his neighbor has ten great ideas for research questions. Despite learning the proper steps and being shown the way, it still is so much more difficult for some than others.

As science teachers, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to teach the scientific method and use it as the framework for all activities in the lab.  All students can learn to formulate a proper research question, to form a hypothesis, to generate a table of variables, and to carry out an experiment using necessary lab skills.   However, some students will be stronger at thinking up innovative questions and designing creative experiments because their minds think differently than their peers.

The different wiring of brains becomes more and more apparent as students progress into the more advanced classes and are expected to become more and more independent in the design of experiments.  Students really separate out during the internal assessment process in IB science where total independence is required.  Then, there are the students who choose to do their extended essay project in a science, which is an opportunity for them to design and conduct an experiment completely stemming from their own interests, not a small feat.

It is a pleasure to foster the growth of budding scientists but there is something really special about spotting that scientific mind and seeing it wonder and wander through a myriad of questions and possibilities.  It’s true, the best I can offer as a teacher is to teach the students the framework of the scientific method (and content) and to foster the growth and expansion of the mind.  Scientists need the freedom to meander intellectually and be free to test their ideas.  That’s my job, to give those minds that freedom. 

Soaking Students

Today I took my IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) students outside to collect some water and soil around our school grounds.  The plan was for the students to perform pH, nitrate, ammonia, and dissolved oxygen tests on the samples to ascertain the health of the surrounding canal water and soil.  Additionally, they will determine the Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the water.  Furthermore, they will calculate the Trent Biotic Index of the canal water.  Thus, they will have personally experienced every aspect of Topic 5.2 of the ESS course.  Sounds reasonable, right?  I thought so!

So, we eagerly headed outside equipped with labeled containers for their samples.  The students divided the labor equally and set to work.  One student jokes, “I’ll collect the water because maybe I’ll fall in again”.  I am not amused because he actually did “fall” into the canal water in the autumn when we were doing another experiment.  I recollect seeing him stroll towards me on the wooded pathway that fall day.  I wasn’t sure what I was observing so I turned to the other students and appealed, “Please tell me that David is not walking towards me in his underwear”.  The students solemnly confirmed that David was, indeed, walking towards me in his underwear.  I did not want a repeat event. 

Fortunately, we collected the samples without further ado and returned to the classroom for testing.  However, upon viewing the test instructions, the students realized that they actually needed more canal water.  Guess who volunteered to round up more water?  That’s right, David.  I hesitated but a colleague who had stepped into the room volunteered to accompany David to help him retrieve the water.  I felt assured with this plan and stayed with the other students while they prepped the rest of the lab.  A few minutes later, my colleague returned with the pitcher of water but not the student.  “David fell into the canal”, she reported, “and has gone to the shower room to clean up”.   Really?  Really?  Really?  Should I laugh or should I be furious?  I was battling both reactions in that moment.

Shattered beakers, cracked test tubes, broken thermometers, fractured syringes, splattered solutions, spilled powders, all kinds of random, unthinkable messes and even fires can be part of my job.  However, today, the drenched docent was my limit.  Thankfully, it was Friday afternoon.

Will I return on Monday with a full lab agenda for the week?  Of course! Despite the untidiness and chaos associated with guiding MS and HS students through the scientific method, it’s worth every minute!  Will I return to the canals for further investigations?  Absolutely.  But without David.