3 Simple Ways You Can Improve Science Labs

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Science labs get kids’ hands on science. Try these tips to maximize learning. First, tie activities to your standards. Second, use a fair test. Third, crunch the numbers (and hit some math concepts along the way!)

Ms. Sneed Bumps Up Her Science Game

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, wants to use more science labs. Let’s look in as she explains her next activity to her mentor.

“What do you have in mind for a weathering lab?” asked Mrs. Brown.

“I thought that kids could cut out pictures of landforms and sort them into three groups: weathering, erosion, and deposition.”

Mrs. Brown’s eyebrows shot up.

“What? You don’t like that idea?” cried Ms. Sneed.

Correlate Science Labs to Your Standards

Let’s take a look at the standards,” Mrs. Brown began “Somebody somewhere spent a lot of time building a scope and sequence. That way, a child’s knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts scaffolds over time. Ah, here it is:

4-ESS2-1 Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of weathering by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.”

“Oh no!” exclaimed Ms. Sneed “My activity doesn’t really match this at all. What do you suggest?”

“You need science labs that allows kids to observe and measure weathering,” her mentor replied. “Hmm, I remember an activity that asks kids to shake chalk with rocks. After shaking, they observe changes in the chalk.”

Use the Fair Test in Science Labs

“That sounds doable,” said Ms. Sneed.

“Whenever possible,” Mrs. Brown continued, “you should use a fair test.”

When Mrs. Brown saw Ms. Sneed’s puzzled look, she explained farther. “The standards also encourage a fair test. At your grade level, this includes comparing, controlling variables, measuring, and replicating.” Once again, the mentor looked through the standards. Finally, she came to Appendix F, which listed science and engineering practices.

Slowly, she moved her finger down the page. When she came to the third practice, she stopped. Again, she read aloud:

Planning and carrying out investigations to answer questions or test solutions to problems in 3-5 builds on K-2 experiences and progresses to include investigations that control variables and provide evidence to support explanations or design solutions.

Then she pointed to the first bullet point. “See? Kids should work collaboratively on science labs. Furthermore, they should produce data, and use fair tests. It says right here that variables should be controlled and number of trials considered.”

“Sounds sort of like the scientific method,” said Ms. Sneed.

“Exactly. Today we use the processes in the scientific method more flexibly. But you’re right. They’re included in these new practices.”

Ms. Sneed looked slightly confused – but determined.

Compare

“To make a fair test, you must first ask a testable question,” said Mrs. Brown. “That requires comparison. Here, you are shaking chalk with rocks. What can you compare?”

“Well, I guess I could compare how many shakes – or the number of rocks in the container.”

“Yes, but look at the standard,” said Mrs. Brown. “I names weathering by water, ice, wind, or vegetation.”

Ms. Sneed took a deep breath and paused in thought. “Okay. Maybe we could compare containers with and without water?”

Mrs. Brown grinned. “Great! This is your independent variable, or the condition changed by the scientist. Fourth graders often just refer to it as the variable. Once kids learn the lingo, they can use it in all their science labs.”

The best science labs include a fair test in which variables are compared. Kids in fourth grade are ready for this type of experiment.
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Control Variables

“Next,” the mentor continued, “kids need to control all other variables. In other words, everything else must be kept the same.”

Ms. Brown paused so her mentee could think about the process. Then she added quietly, “What must the students control?”

Ms. Sneed scratched her head and cautiously proceeded. “The size of the container?”

“Yes! What else?”

“The shape and material of the container,” Ms. Sneed began. Then much more poured out: “The size, type, and number of pieces of chalk. Same with the rocks. Temperature. Humidity. So much more!”

“You are right,” said Mrs. Brown. “In middle school science labs, all of these conditions are called controlled variables. But in my opinion, it’s okay for younger kids to call them controls.”

When doing a science lab, kids in fourth grade should control all but one variable.

Measure

“We have one more variable,” continued Mrs. Brown. “The dependent variable is the condition that is observed and measured as the experiment is conducted.”

Ms. Sneed was really warming up to the idea of a fair test. “In this case, the chalk is the dependent variable,” she said. “Kids will measure the chalk to find out how the water affects it.”

Mrs. Brown nodded in agreement. “Measurement is critical to a fair test. In the best science labs, kids measure independent, controlled, and dependent variables.”

“Let’s see if I’ve got this right,” said Ms. Sneed. “Kids will measure the volume of the water for the independent variable, the mass of the rocks for the controlled variable, and the circumference of the chalk for the dependent variable.”

“Yep, you’ve got it,” smiled Mrs. Brown. “This experiment will be particularly good because kids will use graduated cylinders, balance scales, and tape measures. Whenever you plan a science lab, consider the educational value of the tasks kids must do. This lab does double duty because it integrates math.”

Measurement adds validity to science labs - even in elementary school classrooms.

Replicate

“You also mentioned replicating,” Ms. Sneed prompted.

“Right. One set of results is not enough. Scientists conduct science labs over and over again. In a classroom, it’s easy. If six groups complete the same experiment, you already have replication!”

“I suppose I’d have to leave time at the end of the experiment to share,” said Ms. Sneed.

“Yes, to reinforce these concepts, you should debrief with pointed questions.”

Doing an experiment once is not enough. In fourth grade science classrooms, it's easy to replicate. Just have each group do the same lab then compare results.

Crunch the Numbers

Mrs. Brown continued, “To communicate findings, even more data analysis comes into play. For example, each group might organize results on a table and graph them.”

“In addition, they could find averages,” added Ms. Sneed. “If there’s obvious human error, we could through out the outliers.”

“Now you’re thinking,” her mentor chuckled. “Tables and graphs are a great way to communicate findings from science labs as well.”

Fourth graders can analyze data and communicate on lab sheets like this.

Enjoy Teaching Science Labs

“I guess sorting pictures of weathering, erosion, and deposition isn’t really an experiment,” Ms. Sneed sighed.

“That’s true,” Mrs. Brown replied. “But it may be a valuable activity to use after kids learn about erosion and deposition.”

A small smile brightened Ms. Sneed’s face. “Thanks for helping me raise the bar on my science labs.”

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