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How to Use Science Lab Equipment & Materials

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn how to use some common pieces of science lab equipment, including scales, probeware, meters sticks, microscopes, and computers. Learn about setup, calibration, measurement technique, maintenance, and storage.

Science Lab Equipment

Science experiments can be pretty technical, and they almost always require some kind of equipment. Lab equipment is any object or material used to collect data in a science experiment. It might be nothing more than a meter ruler and stopwatch. But it can also involve microscopes, spectroscopes, computers, telescopes, and all kinds of other high-tech equipment. Understanding how to use that equipment is vital to not only completing the experiment but also to collecting good quality data.

Set Up and Calibration

It's important that your lab equipment is set up and calibrated correctly. Calibration involves making sure the scale isn't off by a certain amount, that zero really means zero.

For example, we use scales and balances to measure the mass of an object in kilograms, grams, or pounds. But it's important to 'zero' the scale first. Electronic scales usually have a button that does this. With analogue scales, you might have to turn a dial or slide a slider. But the key point is that if the scale has nothing on it, it should read zero kilograms. If it doesn't, then the scale needs to be calibrated. You can check the calibration of the scale by using a standard 1 kilogram weight and seeing how it measures.

Scales must be zeroed and calibrated
Scales must be zeroed and calibrated

Probeware are electronic devices that measure pH, humidity, or temperature, among other things, and can be connected to a computer to transfer that data in order to create graphs and other read-outs. The exact way to set up probeware depends on the particular brand, but they generally need to connect to a computer with specific software that can check the probeware's calibration.

Data can be sent straight to a computer to create graphs
Data can be sent straight to a computer to create graphs

Calibrating a microscope can be a long and challenging process. In short, it involves using a standard scale to figure out if the magnification on the microscope is accurate. To set up a microscope for viewing, turn on the light, move the objective lens into position, adjust the eyepiece so you see a single image, place the specimen on the microscope, set the magnification, and focus the image. Every microscope should come with detailed instructions.

Microscope
Microscope

Meter sticks don't usually need setting up or calibrating, but it's still important to know where the zero line on the meter stick is. If the line is faded, it may be best to use a different one. Computers just need to be turned on, and any software you're using can be loaded.

Technique

Using lab equipment is mostly about taking care and using proper technique.

Whenever you measure something, whether it's a distance with a ruler, or a time on a stopwatch, it's best to do multiple trials and average them for maximum accuracy. If you make a mistake when taking one of the measurements, if possible it's best to cross it out and try again. Take your time and make sure every measurement is as good as you can make it.

But aside from taking care, you can use proper eye line. Whenever you're measuring something, the eye you use to measure should be right alongside it or above it. For example, if you're measuring with a ruler, your eye should be right alongside the marking you're looking at. Or if you're measuring water in a graduated cylinder, your eye should be directly in line with the meniscus (the double-line on the top of the water). It's usually best to put one eye in position and close the other. If two measurements need to be taken simultaneously in different places, use two people so both measurements use the correct eye line.

Another important part of technique is understanding that light travels faster than sound. For timing, visual cues are more precise than audio cues. Even using light, human reaction times can be as high as 0.2 seconds. Of course a computer will be more precise than a human, so using computer measurement is best when it's an option, which is one of the great benefits of probeware.

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