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Facilitating Science Labs & Field Investigations

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll learn how to navigate the rewarding experience of teaching your students how actually to ''do'' science. Here, we'll look at collaborative strategies to plan labs and techniques you can use to run smooth, educational lab and field days.

Why Should We Do Science?

Ms. Horner is a first-year biology teacher. With 30 students, she feels like it's easier to give them notes and have them do a worksheet than to let them carry out experiments themselves. However, the way that we learn impacts how much information we retain. Students need to experience the creativity of asking questions and designing a lab, or scientific investigation inside the classroom.

Collaboration

Sometimes, doing a lab in class isn't enough, and you'll want to take your students on a field investigation, where you carry out research outside of the classroom. This might involve collecting water samples to test for water purity or measuring the amount of stars in the sky for an astronomy lab.

Students conduct research in the natural environment during a field investigation.
field investigation

In any of these cases, collaboration can be a nice way to ease some of the work in planning a field trip. To take students on a field trip there are many duties that must be done that can be shared among teachers:

  • Organizing transportation
  • Designing permission slips
  • Collecting permission slips
  • Arranging food for the trip

Next, see if there are any projects that span across content areas that you could collaborate on. For example, students could be researching water quality in the neighborhood and partnering with their English teacher to write an article for the school newsletter. Make sure that you collaborate with special education teachers to ensure their students are able to access the experience as well.

Designing the Experience

The next step is to design the lab. Labs can be complicated with many individual steps that must be carried out in a specific order.

1. Provide Background Information

First, decide what information students need to do to be successful in the lab or field investigation. If you're doing a lab on acids and bases, they'll need some background information on what these chemicals are. Students should be familiar with the equipment they will be using and what the goal of the lab is.

2. Create Clear Directions

The directions should be written clearly with pictures for tricky steps. Consider doing the lab yourself and writing down exactly what you do at each step to write the procedures. When it's time to do the lab with the students, make sure you read the directions together slowly, particularly if you have English language learners (ELLs), and demonstrate each step as you go. Many students with disabilities require information to be repeated and given as smaller chunks with visual aids.

Including pictures of a person doing the lab can help make directions clearer.
lab procedure

3. Gather Data

Think about how you want students to gather data. Do you want them to practice graphing or making useful qualitative observations? For more advanced students, you can leave more of the lab up to them. They can ask their own research questions, design their own procedures, and determine what types of data to collect and how to present the information.

Teacher as a Facilitator

In labs and field investigations, the role of the teacher should be that of a facilitator, or a guide. Although you should give directions clearly in the beginning, try to use leading questions when students get stuck. For example, if students are unclear about how many milliliters of water to add, suggest they go back to the procedure instead of giving them the answer.

Scaffolding

The level of teacher direction depends on the skills your students have. Students with disabilities may need more clear direction and scaffolding to complete labs or investigations, particularly in the beginning of the year. Scaffolding includes structures put in lab to help students start, such as word banks, sentence starters, or including visual aids.

Organization

Even with the best intentions, things can sometimes go awry if your students aren't meeting your behavior expectations. Labs and field investigations can be messy with lots of students moving in the classroom doing different things. Likewise, a new setting in a field investigation will bring new challenges. So how do you keep your students on task?

Organization for Labs

First, make the expectations clear for the lab. Should students be seated if they aren't getting supplies? Who should they be working with? You can start by getting students to generate ideas about what good lab work should look like and sound like.

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