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Organizing for Success in Hands-On Science

By Anthony Cody — August 10, 2008 4 min read

When I began teaching middle school science, I thought it was going to be great. I wasn’t going to be one of those boring teachers making students memorize facts out of a book. I was going to give them hands-on activities! I knew they would love to investigate things for themselves, so I spent my own money on materials, and wrote up a lab sheet for an investigation. I was not prepared for what was about to happen. I spent fifteen minutes explaining what the steps they were supposed to follow. Then I allowed them to come and get their materials. The result was chaos. Thirty-plus students roaming around the room, retrieving materials, fooling around, getting in one another’s way, taking more than they needed, and otherwise wasting time. They had not listened very closely to my instructions, so once they had their materials, they started “experimenting.” I had to yell over the din to get their attention, to tell them to be sure to measure their materials and record their results carefully. By this time the period was almost over. Fortunately I had a conference period after this one, because when the students left, their materials were all over the room. Whew! The students enjoyed the experience, but I did not! They had not done the experiment carefully, and half the groups had not even recorded their results. There was a colossal mess left behind, and I had very little to show for all my effort gathering the materials. I began to understand why some teachers chose bookwork over hands-on activities.

But giving up on these engaging activities shortchanges our students for our own shortcomings, because they can work well if we get organized, and realize we have to teach them how to learn in new ways. Many of our students, especially in the era of test-driven instruction, arrive at middle and even high school with very few hands-on experiences. For science instruction, there are some special skills and procedures. Here are some key things to teach:

Working in cooperative groups: For most hands-on activities, a class of 32 can be broken into 8 groups of four. Groups work best if there are assigned roles, such as one person in charge of materials, another in charge of reviewing the directions and making sure they are followed, a third responsible for recording data, and a fourth who serves as a facilitator, and monitors how the group is working together and makes sure everyone is on task. Here is a web site with more details.

You can allow groups to assign these roles themselves, or you can assign them as the teacher – but make sure each group has the roles clearly defined.

Getting materials: My favorite strategy was to get ten gray restaurant bus trays (available for about $5 each at a restaurant supply store). To set up for class, I load up each team’s materials in the bus tray, and then the materials person can get the whole batch all at once. Before they start, have the group take a close look at the materials. Since I usually have another class coming in on their heels, I need those materials in the same condition at the end of the period.

Following Directions: I begin by reviewing the directions on the lab handout. We have a limited amount of time. It takes about fifteen minutes to get started, and ten minutes to clean up – that only leaves us about twenty minutes for the actual experiment. We do not have time for playing around. The data the students gather will not have any value if they do not follow the directions.

Collecting data: Even if you have a designated Recorder responsible for data collection, everyone in the group must be observing the experiment and recording the data. The data has to be collected carefully. If there is a new piece of equipment involved, have a separate lesson on how to use it. Do not have students’ first exposure to a triple beam balance be a challenging lab activity.

Cleaning up: Have a signal, like a small gong, to let students know it is clean-up time. Make sure you set aside at least ten minutes for students to clean up and get their materials organized for the next class. Make it clear who in the group should be taking things to the sink. Avoid having 32 students moving in different directions. This is where your assignment of roles pays off.

Take time to teach the procedures! Set up a simple experiment with easy data collection and quick clean-up as a practice. Have students compare their data so they can see if they are being accurate. If they are off, have them write about the sources of error.

You can also provide some active feedback to the groups as they are working. One strategy is to circulate and listen to the discussions at each table. Then you can write on the overhead some notes reflecting these discussions – both on-task and off-task. This lets everyone know you are paying attention. They are working autonomously, but you are providing clear guidance.

When the activity is finished, have them reflect on how their group functioned. Give them a rubric on group functioning, and have them reflect on how they worked together in different ways. Keep track of their group-work score and challenge them to improve next time.

If the class has not met your expectations, make it clear that they must improve if they want to do hands-on experiments in the future.

When students have a chance to investigate science concepts for themselves, through first-hand experiences, I believe they learn things in a much deeper way. Furthermore, we want our students to be able to work well with others and to take responsibility for their own learning. When the students are well-prepared and we are well-organized, these activities can become a smoothly running part of the curriculum.

Do you have any other tips for success with hands-on science? Any advice for other subject areas?

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