Science Labs

This year, my teens have been studying chemistry at home. Well, we have included a few others from our homeschool support group in our journey because it makes it more fun for them and, honestly, having them share the costs makes it cheaper to buy cool science lab gear. (Ebay for the win with getting a lot of this equipment inexpensively, too.) We could have done the experiment shown above with a dropper and some plastic cups, but it wouldn’t seem the same as using beakers, test tubes, graduated cylinders, and a burette.

This lab looks harder than it is. The colors from using water that red cabbage was cooked in make the lab seem more cheerful and fun. Calculating the molarity of the solution makes it an appropriate lab for high school chemistry even though it was a simple variation of the classic vinegar and baking soda activity.

We’ve done a wide variety of labs and activities this year. Our main curriculum, Friendly Chemistry, had a lot of hands-on activities and games as well as a few labs. I added manipulatives such as “Happy Atoms” molecule model building kit, games such as “Chemistry Fluxx” and “Science Ninjas: Valence” as well as some worksheets on using significant figures and several additional labs. I required the kids to do four major projects; one had to be an experiment with a formal lab report, but they had a lot of freedom in choosing the others. Some learned and sang the periodic table song. One put together a video spoof of “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” on a chemistry topic. Another researched famous women chemists, while another dissolved styrofoam in a chemical reaction.

But this class brings to mind something I’ve seen debated regularly on online forums: How many science labs does it take to legitimately call a class a “lab class?” I’ve seen a lot of answers, but honestly, when I worked in schools, I knew a high school science teacher who had his students do one lab per school year and his students received credit for a science lab class. So, it doesn’t take many at all as far as the school systems are concerned. His students got credit in a lab class just as mine did even though my students that year did dozens of labs–some of which took multiple class sessions to complete.

But my advice to homeschool parents is this: Don’t focus on the number of labs. Instead think about the purpose of labs. To me, I want labs to teach my children the concepts being studied in class, but also to learn the experimental method in a hands-on way, to learn to use scientific tools, and to learn how to effectively communicate what they observed in formal and informal reports. If those are accomplished, we’ve done enough labs. Likewise, each parent should decide what they want the child to get out of their lab course and that should be the way of deciding if enough labs have been done or not. Well, that and maybe, think of how the course will sound if you have to list the labs done in a description of the class; if lab list sounds puny to you, add some more in. And don’t forget options such as virtual online labs or even field trips. My college biology class included a scavenger hunt at a local museum as a lab; if a college could do that, surely a high school class could, too?

Cheryl
chavivah@yahoo.com

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