Preparing to Teach Science Labs
Adapted with permission from University of California Santa Barbara TA Handbook and Farris, 1985
Science labs provide students with the opportunity to practice science much in the way professionals do. This hands-on experience encourages students to develop a spirit of inquiry and allows them to be practicing scientists. Often, though, labs are presented as mere recipes in which students follow precise instructions to arrive at a conclusion whose importance is not clear. In order for labs to be effective, students need to understand not only how to do the experiment, but why the experiment is worth doing, and what purpose it serves for better understanding a concept, relationship, or process.
Labs are sometimes offered in conjunction with large lecture courses so that students may acquire technical skills and apply concepts and theories presented in lecture. Labs, however, are often “stand-alone” classes with no connection to a parent course. Even when they are related to another course, they often have their own agenda that may not be related to the lecture. The most important thing that associate instructors can do to ensure that their lab sections run smoothly is to be well prepared. Basic weekly planning for lab section might include the following strategies:
- Know exactly what the students are supposed to learn and why they have to learn these things.
- Research the relevance of the experiment, both the technique being taught and the applications of the theory being demonstrated.
- Read and study the theory on which the experiment(s) are based. Your understanding of the theoretical aspect of the lab should help you handle most student questions which don’t deal with concrete parts of the experiment(s).
- Perform the entire experiment in advance. Familiarize yourself with the equipment that your students will be using. By going through the lab yourself, you’ll be familiar with some of the stumbling blocks that your students may confront and you’ll know the subtler points of the process you are demonstrating.
- Be acquainted with the storeroom of the lab so that time won’t be lost during a lab looking for necessary equipment or materials.
- Know the location of the first aid kit, basic first aid rules, and procedures for getting emergency assistance. Demonstrate to students the proper technique—all of the precautionary measures you perform almost unconsciously. Safety takes on special importance when you are directly responsible for the health and well-being of 25 or more laboratory students. Most departments’ orientations cover safety procedures, but if they do not, the professor or lab coordinator in charge of the course will probably take responsibility for describing departmental policies.
- Talk to experienced instructors. They will often have very useful tips about things you are teaching.
- Ensure that students are familiar with the lab before they come to class. A pre-lab exercise, such as a statement of purposes and procedures or an explanation of why and how the experiment is relevant to the course, can be a valuable preparatory activity. Students who have no understanding of why the experiment is important will not derive much knowledge from conducting it, nor will they remember or be able to use much of what they do learn.
- Decide how to introduce the lab most effectively. Your initial introduction to the lab or the day’s first activity can set the tone and motivation for the rest of the lab. Will a 15-minute lecture about the theory and intent of the lab suffice? Will you need to demonstrate the procedures that they’ll be following? Is a handout with written instructions in order? What safety information do they need?
- Plan how you will guide students in preparing their lab reports. Obtain some sample data and work the calculations and answer the questions (without using the key).
The Teaching Resource Center at the University of Virginia has a webpage about teaching college-level laboratory courses.
The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has a collection of links to various online handbooks about science laboratory instruction: .
Chapter 2, “How Teachers Teach: Specific Methods,” in Science Teaching Reconsidered (1997; National Academies Press; ) contains a section about laboratory instruction and provides suggestions for making labs an effective learning environment.
Who is doing this at IUB?
Ben Motz, Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, uses the Oncourse Wiki tool to help associate instructors build an archive of teaching strategies and resources (Teaching and Learning Gateway Faculty Showcase).
Associate instructors in the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics participate in microteaching opportunities during orientation in order to practice with laboratory introductions and solving problems.
For more help or information
Katie Kearns (firstname.lastname@example.org) can help faculty implement microteaching opportunities and design orientation and preparatory sessions for lab instructors.