By Jeffrey Mays
Teachers and students agree that lab days are everyone’s favorite days in science class. They are a unique feature found only in the science class: a day of activity and social interaction when exciting behaviors of the natural world will be witnessed. But how can this experience be replicated when learning is occurring online? Many homeschool co-ops are facing the challenge of how to conduct effective lab experiments online. So what is the solution?
Is the solution for the teacher do the experiment while students watch on the screen? No. The solution is that students must do much, if not all, of the experiment at home with instructor supervision taking place via video conference. Just because lectures have to be done from a computer screen doesn’t mean that lab experiments work that way too. Student involvement in experiments is non-negotiable—and that might require parental engagement, or even working with other families in the community.
While some accommodations must be made, experiments in an online learning context can still be effective. If you are searching for a solution, consider the following resources available from Novare Science:
The Student Lab Report Handbook – although this book becomes most important starting in 9th grade, it contains useful information for middle school students about keeping a lab journal, accounting for and analyzing experimental error, and understanding the difference between accuracy and precision. In high school, students should read chapters 1-6 of this book at the time of their first experiment.
Teaching Science So That Students Learn Science – chapter 9 of this little book contains excellent material on lab work and the importance of writing lab reports.
Experiment Manuals – each Novare science textbook has an accompanying experiment manual, either sold as a separate book or included in the digital resources. For physics-based topics, there are separate student instructions with an explanation of the procedure, as well as material for the teacher/parent concerning learning objectives, materials lists, and pre-lab discussion points. Chemistry and biology experiment books are different in that every student is intended to have their own book along with the teacher.
Preparing in advance for your science lab is absolutely necessary—including both gathering supplies and studying for the upcoming lab. Novare labs are not paint-by-numbers affairs! They are designed to bring students into the daily experience and teach the skills of real scientists; a seat-of-the-pants approach is anything but scientific.
Our own Scholé Academy has found ways to execute lab experiments such that students at home are effectively engaged and receive quality lab experience and instruction. One of our science instructors at Scholé Academy, Dr. Kathryn Morton, offered some general insights, which I’ve adapted below, on how to conduct experiments in the online learning context
- If the teacher has a smart phone or any video filming capability, he or she should conduct the lab in advance and record it, demonstrating especially how to do any difficult parts. This will also help the teacher know what to expect when the students perform the lab at home.
- Whether with a single student or a class, at least one parent should be involved with every experiment. Not only are there safety concerns—such as mixing chemicals or operating a fire or electricity source—but frequently an extra pair of hands is needed, and sometimes a team of three or four is necessary. Parents can coach their student(s) on the need for the extreme attention to detail that science demands. They can also provide guidance when it comes to taking accurate measurements and thinking about what to note in students’ lab journals.
- Provide students and families with material lists well in advance so they are able to procure equipment. Don’t be afraid to substitute less expensive items if budgets are a concern—for example, a polypropylene graduated cylinder for $3 works just as well as a glass one for $6.
- Discuss the lab in a session prior to conducting the experiment. Build anticipation and discuss safety issues, proper lab protocol, and any modifications that will be required for the procedure. You can also use this time to build any necessary data tables together.
- Have the students prepare any required chemistry solutions prior to the lab, ensuring they make enough for any subsequent experiments.
- On the day of the lab, expect students to show up on time with equipment gathered and an appropriate place cleared off for conducting the experiment. Read the procedure aloud and present any videos you want to show them demonstrating technique. Then let them get started. If you have access to a business Zoom account with the right features, you can separate students into individual breakout rooms and monitor them individually.
- Assume that the experiment will take more than the time allotted and that students will have to complete the lab after class is over and the cameras go off.
Adaptation will vary from experiment to experiment and from one science discipline to another. The Pendulum Experiment in Introductory Physics and Accelerated Studies in Physics and Chemistry, for example, is very easy to conduct at home; you may need to be creative on frog dissection day.
Don’t feel bad about referring students to videos on Youtube that they should watch beforehand. You may need to decide on certain experiments you will do using the method above, and supplement with additional experiments recorded and watched after hours.
Online experiments may require considerable accommodation, but they can still be fun and significantly enhance students’ learning opportunities.