5 Smart Ways to Run Science Labs When You’re Teaching Remotely
Because of the epidemic, science teachers in middle and high schools faced the possibility of having one of the most engaging aspects of the curriculum—lab work—become mostly inaccessible to them. How would students be able to acquire safe, realistic experience completing hands-on experiments in order to more profoundly comprehend scientific theories and concepts if they did not have access to classroom equipment and materials and the assistance of teachers in person?
Many educators, particularly those working in rural or high-poverty areas of the country, were concerned that requiring children to complete home lab work would place some of their pupils at an unfair disadvantage. Lee Ferguson, a biology instructor in Allen, Texas, told us that his primary worry with conducting labs remotely is equity. “Not all of my students have access to the same equipment and materials, and my student population is rather vast,” Ferguson explained. Because of the limitations we face, it was imperative that we make every effort to ensure that the opportunities we offer to children are as fair as they can be.
A lot of teachers, including Ferguson, came up with clever and inventive ways to encourage students to engage in experiential learning at home. They tell us that it has been an adjustment for sure, and that it is not the same as being together in the classroom, but “students are always surprisingly resilient,” said Jimmy Newland, a physics and astronomy teacher in Houston. “It’s not the same as being together in the classroom,” they told us. “In my opinion, using remote laboratories completely transforms the traditional laboratory experience into something fresh, which isn’t always a negative thing.”
Cris Chacon, a physics instructor in Golden, Colorado, was pleasantly surprised by how engaged and creative his students became with at-home labs. He noted that his students relished working at their own pace and having time to “actually engage with and explore their curiosity.” Chacon’s students enjoyed working at their own pace and having time to “actually engage with and explore their curiosity.” According to Jodie Deinhammer, a science teacher in Coppell, Texas, her kids’ confidence began to rise once the classroom and instructor scaffolding were removed. “They’re learning via trial and error, which is a great way to learn,” she added. “They’re trying new things.”
The following are five ways that middle level and high school science teachers have told us they are bringing science labs to life for students who are learning remotely.
1. HAVING STUDENTS USE WHAT’S ALREADY AT HOME
We heard from a number of science teachers who designed their classroom laboratories using a variety of objects that kids might either find lying about their homes or purchase for a reasonable price. For a chromatography experiment, for example, Houston physics, chemistry, and geology teacher Jon Bergmann assigned a lesson utilising cups, markers, paper towels, and food dye. His students conducted an experiment on ocean currents by sprinkling pepper into bathtubs or plastic bins that were filled with water and turning over measuring cups in the water to represent “islands” in the “ocean.” Bergmann’s pupils, who are supposed to videotape their at-home labs as they explain their work to a parent or guardian, “have been extremely creative,” he reports.
For an activity examining stoichiometric connections, high school chemistry and physics instructor David Peterson, in British Columbia, Canada, assigned a three-part baking activity. First, students prepared baking powder biscuits using a recipe that stated ingredients by mass, which they had to convert to volume values. After that, they decreased the amount of ingredients in the recipe and made the biscuits once more. “The idea is to get biscuits that taste the same as the ones before,” Peterson added. There were a few accidents, but thanks to the taste test, most people were able to figure out what went wrong. Peterson challenged the students to make shortbread cookies with “no more than X quantity of butter, Y quantity of sugar, and Z quantity of flour.” This was the third and final activity in the lesson. The objective is to bake as many cookies as time and space permit.
As soon as her students went remote, Deinhammer sent her seventh-grade life science students outside for an observation and data collection lab. She opted for a citizen science approach to teach her class and went with it. They went around their neighbourhoods and collected cicadas to study, and then they used iPads provided by their schools to measure, magnify, and photograph the insects. They then “analysed the data together and tried to find trends or similarities, or outliers,” sharing their findings in a database of results compiled by students from across the country.
2. PREPARING TAKE-HOME KITS
At the start of the remote school year, high school math and science instructional coach Logan Gaddy told us, chemistry teachers at her Ennis, Texas, high school prepared simple, safe lab kits that students could pick up and complete at home. The kits contained supplies that could be used at home and did not call for any electronic scales or other instruments that the school would not permit students to take out of the classroom. For instance, PTC paper was included in biology kits “so students could test themselves to see if they had a particular genetic variation.” Hydrogen peroxide, salt, and either non-galvanized nails or iron filings were included in the lab kits for the chemistry experiment on the oxidation of iron.
Take-home kits can be a way to keep all children engaged in stimulating science lab work at home, which is especially important in a school year in which the pandemic has magnified the deep and persistent educational inequality caused by the digital divide.
3. CREATING LIVE OR RECORDED LABS
In order to provide her students with the opportunity to “collect data together and engage in inquiry in a more’real’ setting,” biology instructor Mika Hunter Twietmeyer of Durham, North Carolina, has been conducting live lab demonstrations through the use of Zoom this school year. Twietmeyer planned a “murder mystery” lab for a recent honours biology class. In the lab, students used reagents to “test for different macromolecules in a sample of’stomach contents,'” she explained. Starch, lipids, simple sugars, and protein were some of the components of the sample that we analysed.
Twietmeyer uses a document camera and a lab worksheet to record her demonstrations at her desk in the classroom. She sends the worksheet and the document camera online in advance to students so that they can record her data themselves. She begins each of her Zoom labs with a concise introduction and a number of pre-lab questions, which the students work through in separate rooms. After that, she goes over the procedures for lab safety and then introduces the materials and equipment that will be required for the lab. She keeps the kids interested by asking them questions with little at stake, like “What am I supposed to do next?”
After the class has finished collecting the data, she leads the students to separate rooms so that they can analyse it and respond to any remaining questions. “I get the sense that the students enjoy the labs,” says Twietmeyer. However, just to be certain, she follows up with a Google Sheets survey with questions such as: “What aspects of the lab did you enjoy the most?” and “What did you enjoy the least?”
Matthew Simmons, a biology and physics teacher in Bedford, Texas, told us that he recorded versions of his labs that introduced “some form of error.” This was done so that the labs would have a degree of “uncontrollable variable” or error, similar to what students may inadvertently do when completing labs in the classroom. Simmons’s goal was to simulate what students might do when completing labs in the classroom. His objective was to steer students in the direction of “a little more analysis, thought, and an alternative hypothesis.” Simmons wanted his students to have the experience of working on real-world scientific problems in his labs, so he asked himself, “Many times, scientists make discoveries by accident—how could I make that occur in these labs?”
4. PROVIDING ONLINE SIMULATIONS
We heard from a number of educators that they enjoy using online simulation resources such as PhET, which is a free tool developed by the University of Colorado that offers interactive, game-like simulations for use in mathematics, physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology classrooms. The activities that make up PhET are designed to give students access to an open-ended and exploratory setting in which they can interact with scientific material in the same way that scientists do.
Bending light diagram
Students are able to adjust variables in PhET simulations, such as this one on how light bends between different materials, and see what effects those changes have on the outcome of the simulation.
An earth science simulation about glaciers, for example, allows students to change and analyse mountain snowfall and temperatures so they can witness a glacier expand and shrink. Students can experiment with stretching a single strand of DNA with optical tweezers or fluid flow through the use of a biology simulation that focuses on stretching DNA. According to the description of the simulation, you are instructed to “experiment with the forces involved and quantify the relationship between the stretched DNA length and the force necessary to keep it stretched.” “Is DNA more like a rope or like a spring?” Students can “construct” an atom by employing protons, neutrons, and electrons in a chemistry simulation. This allows them to “see how the element, charge, and mass change,” and afterward they can play a game to test their concepts and see how well they hold up.
The physics teacher Chacon gives his students the ability to “manipulate digital tools and variables to observe natural events” by having them participate in PhET simulations. According to Chacon, students have the ability to adjust the inputs and settings so that they can collect data that can be examined, “much like an in-person lab.”
5. LETTING STUDENTS CONTROL VARIABLES VIA INTERACTIVE VIDEOS
Pivot Interactives was mentioned to us by a number of educators as an additional method that can be used to facilitate the manipulation of variables by students. A subscription to Pivot, which costs $5 per student for the whole school year, provides students with access to a video library that showcases live experiments, during which they can take measurements and perform data analysis immediately on the website. Students can calculate the rate of photosynthesis of a basil plant growing under coloured lights by measuring the levels of carbon dioxide in the air around the plant as part of a biology lab that focuses on photosynthesis, for instance. Students can vary the tangential speed, radius, and mass of a spinning cylinder as part of a physics experiment about the factors that influence the centripetal force, and then measure the net force exerted on the cylinder.
David Eckstrom, who teaches physics and chemistry in Hayward, Wisconsin, informed us that the software in question is not a simulation tool. Instead, “students are almost like remote-controlling a genuine lab with real humans running it,” according to the professor. Students conduct actual measurements using actual measuring tools, and then they analyse the data they’ve collected.”
Pivot then pairs each student with a video that demonstrates “someone collecting authentic data with an experimental setup,” as explained by Ferguson, the biology instructor. Once students have decided what they would like to manipulate, Pivot then pairs them with the appropriate video. “Students can then record the data that is generated, process it using appropriate mathematical operations, and then analyse and evaluate the results.” “The data can then be recorded by the students.”