3 Ways to 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!)

Raise the bar on your science labs!

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 a science lab that allows kids to observe and measure weathering,” her mentor replied. “Hmm, I remember an activity that asks kids to shake chalk with rocks…”

Match your science labs with your standards.

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Use the Fair Test in Science Labs

“That sounds doable,” said Ms. Sneed. What about observations and measurements, though?”

“Whenever possible, 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. Let’s break it down.”

Ms. Sneed looked slightly confused – but determined.

Compare

“The heart of a fair test is comparison: the test. 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.”

Improve your science labs by comparing.
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. “All of these conditions are called controlled variables, but it’s okay for younger kids to call them controls.”

High quality science labs control all other variables.
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. Scientists must be able to 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.”

Don't forget to measure in your science labs.
Replicate

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

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

Encourage your students to act like scientists. Emphasize replication in your science labs.

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

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

Crunch the Numbers

Mrs. Brown continued, “To communicate findings, even more math 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.

Ask students to crunch the numbers during your science labs. Finding averages and creating graphs are two easy ways to communicate.

“I guess sorting pictures of weathering, erosion, and deposition isn’t really a science lab,” 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.”

Improve your science labs by matching standards, using a fair test, and crunching numbers.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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