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The Importance of Science Labs (and how to make them happen) Part Three

By Kristen Lauria | April 10, 2018 | AIM Academy, High School, Meet the Teachers

In the last two posts, I talked about how lab activities benefit your student, but now I’d like to switch gears a bit and discuss how you can help your student get through labs and make a success of those assignments they may be avoiding.  But first, it helps to understand some of the reasons students avoid labs.

  • They’re time consuming.
  • They require planning ahead.
  • They don’t have the materials.
  • They feel overwhelmed or confused.

For the student who does well with bookwork and can get through assignments efficiently, having to stop to complete a lab can seem frustrating or a waste of time.  Since you already know they are important, one way you can help your student is to schedule a regular lab time into your week.  If they know the time is set aside for labs, and possibly means that there won’t be bookwork for that class on that day, they will hopefully see it as less of a time drain and more of a useful tool.

Many labs that you complete will require planning ahead.  If your student doesn’t look at the lab ahead of time, they may not know that the steps will take several hours or days and won’t plan accordingly.  In addition to what they might learn in the lab, this is a great skill to learn for life.  However, bear in mind that most teens don’t have the ability to do this on their own.  The part of their brain that controls executive function, which includes planning, isn’t fully developed yet.  They may need you to model for them how to plan out the activity, and in the beginning, the planning may fall entirely to you.  If the activity will take several days, help them by getting them started each day and showing them what needs to be done.  Write out the steps and which days they need to be completed on and follow up by checking that those steps have been done so that Friday doesn’t roll in and no progress has been made.

Sometimes the planning process will include gathering materials.  Just as the planning may initially fall to you, so might the materials-gathering process.  If the book is broken into units or chapters with multiple labs, try gathering the materials to a single box or cabinet (if it is safe to store the materials together).  Demonstrate how to organize the materials by activity and soon your student will be able to follow your model and gather future materials themselves.

And the final reason many students avoid lab activities is that they feel overwhelmed.  This is often a combination of the first three obstacles and by following the steps above, your student can often avoid this issue.  If labs also overwhelm you, try starting by breaking the labs for a course into groups, then follow the steps above.  Get out a calendar and plan for when each activity must start and how long it will take, giving yourself lots of buffer room for life and mistakes.  Plan to do a little each day or set aside an entire day for labs, whichever works best for your family.  Then gather the materials for the first few labs.  Separate and label the material so you can see what you have and what still needs to be found.  If you see the lab as small steps it won’t be so overwhelming and is much more likely to be done. Think of it like cooking a meal, you don’t do all the steps at once and it’s much less overwhelming if you have all the pieces together before you start.  Planning is your best weapon when it comes to labs. In the end, it’s ok if you don’t do every lab, but make an effort to do a good chunk of them.

And finally, my biggest piece of advice is to let students do the labs themselves and that struggling is alright, even good, for your student.  It’s the struggle during learning that makes the connections in our brains and doing the lab for your student won’t help them in the long run but working by their side and showing that you are learning right along with them will do wonders for their self-confidence and interest in the material they are studying.  Even if you are familiar with the experiment, showing your interest and enthusiasm in the subject will help ignite a fire of interest in your student, even if the topic at hand isn’t their favorite subject.  Lab activities are important, and more importantly, totally doable for both the scientist and non-scientist alike!  If one activity doesn’t work, chalk it up to experience and move on.  Use what you’ve learned to make the next activity a success!

Find a great lab activity here that you can practice with!  It’s fun and it doesn’t count toward your grade, so try it out with your student and see if you both don’t have fun and learn at the same time!  Comment below with how it turned out!

Physics Lab Example