With the recent adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in Michigan and Connecticut, science educators across the country took to social media to celebrate the growing list of states adopting the new science standards that will prepare students for 21st century STEM careers (Michigan and Connecticut Adopt NGSS – Why It Matters So Much and Why Science Teachers Are Rejoicing).
But, while fourteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the NGSS, the majority of the schools across the country have not and teachers are struggling, now more than ever, to find ways to innovate their science labs, and they’re turning to each other, through their personal learning networks in social media, for help.
One science teacher in the Science Teachers subReddit (described as “a place for science educators to collaborate on and contribute tips, ideas, labs, and curricula”), recently launched a lively discussion on problems using traditional, scientific method to teach labs. The teacher (who goes by the Reddit name leeshis0019) expresses frustration with the limitations of teaching students the traditional, scientific method versus the inquiry-based approach (which the NGSS encourages), noting that students are never given the chance to test what they learn or to create their own inquiry-based research.
“Alright, so this is a problem. I teach scientific method in the first unit. We go over all the terms: controls, variables, hypothesis, conclusion, analysis, blah blah blah blah. I have a 2 day lesson for it. After this first unit it goes away. I mean not entirely. We do labs where I ask “What do you think will happen and why?”, but that’s total BS. When I print it out I think “This is total BS.”
Do any of you have the same problem? I feel like the labs I give are strictly for data gathering and analysis. Students do what is told of them. They don’t hypothesize. They don’t come up with their own experimental design. I know that’s asking a lot of some students, but why do I do labs then? What’s the point? I might as well always do a demo. if the point is for them to “see” what we are talking about in class.
Just ranting a little. I wish school districts would get with the times and allow us to implement the strategies that work. Also, stop expecting these kids to be experts at 10 different standards. These kids learn only to memorize and regurgitate information–it might look good for my evaluation, but it’s not real.” — leeshis0019
The comments from fellow-science teachers were chock full of enlightening ideas and advice that underscored the differences between traditional, scientific method in labs (what many teachers refer to as “cookbook” labs where students simply follow a recipe) and Science & Engineering Practices outlined in the NGSS (the inquiry-based approach). Several teachers in the discussion lamented the disappointing results of doing science labs using passive learning methods. While one teacher, TeachWHAT, added to the chorus of frustrations, explaining that there was a dire need for immediate change in how her labs were being taught:
“YES I have the same problem. For most of our labs, I feel it is better to use the term prediction instead of hypothesis. I am trying to address my students misconceptions and they aren’t doing any research to support their “hypothesis”.
The other thing I am noticing with my labs, students don’t think. I have decided I need to model “critical thinking”. In a recent lab my students did poorly when asked to compare rolling, sliding and air friction. They could not come up with an answer. True, the lab was done in two parts, but in both parts rolling friction was the least. They didn’t make the connection between reduced speed and more friction.
I feel I need to model that critical thinking process. If they can’t find the answer in the reading, they quit… I don’t feel my students take time to think about the questions that are the heart of the lab. And then there is the “following directions” part of things. They skip straight to doing and don’t read the directions. Then later they read the directions and make major changes. My current challenge is getting the kids to think about what they are doing and applying what they know about scientific investigations to all their labs. Good Luck!”
One biology teacher, always_reading, explained in great detail his process of transitioning from coobook labs to inquiry-based labs. A process, he admits, that was well worth the extra work:
“I had the same thought process until I started to transition most of my “cookbook” style labs to inquiry based labs. Inquiry-based labs are the types of labs that ask students to think critically, formulate questions, and even design a procedure to answer those questions. They get kids to truly use the scientific method and allows them to engage in science practices that require them to think and act like scientists…
When I switched to an inquiry based approach, I had them do the same [cookbook] lab, but in a different way. First of all, I would not teach the lesson prior to the lab. The lab comes first. I would drop an antacid tablet in water to show them the reaction. As a class, they would come up with different ways we could time the speed of the chemical reaction so that they could tell when it was faster or slower. Then I would give them their task: In small groups they had to come up with different ways of altering the speed of that reaction. Each group had to come up with several possible ways of doing so, and design experiments to prove the effects of those factors on rate of the reaction.
In small groups they had to come up with different ways of altering the speed of that reaction. Each group had to come up with several possible ways of doing so, and design experiments to prove the effects of those factors on rate of the reaction. I would give them a list of all the different equipment available for them to use, but they could request for extra stuff if their design called for it. At the end of a planning period, the kids would hand in their experiment designs and I would provide feedback. Then the next class period they go to work on their own experiments. The rest of the assignment is the same as before, except for the fact that the hypothesis is more genuine and the procedure is their own.”
A recent NSTA post, Reforming Cookbook Labs, notes that giving students roles that encourage collaboration and mixing up the steps of a traditional lab, as described in the user’s example, are key to producing more inquiry-based science labs. Through this transformation, “students use the step-by-step procedure to accomplish the lab goals, but they become interdependent on each other because the tasks required to complete the lab are split up among the group members.” In this way, classroom labs operate more like real scientific labs and are more engaging for students and teachers.
In inquiry-based labs, project-based learning (PBL) is crucial and highly effective. Students learning in groups and thinking of different ways to question and test ideas shows them how real-world scientists solve problems and support one another. It’s no surprise that research supports the high success rate of students taught using NGSS-aligned, project-based curriculum over students taught using traditional scientific methods (Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?).
Always_reading’s feedback ends on a reflective note and offers teachers who want to transition to inquiry, project-based learning, a reminder that change is good and the work is worth it:
“This method is more time consuming than the first since you have to allow that extra class period for planning, but it is much more engaging for the students, both during the lab and later on when I finally teach the lesson on the concepts the lab was based on. Like I said earlier, I don’t do all my labs this way due to time constraints, and also because some labs don’t lend themselves to this method, but switching even a third of my labs to this method noticeably increased student engagement, critical thinking, and understanding of the scientific method.”
Other teachers chimed in with passionate pleas for change, like Antibane, who wants to do away with scientific method altogether:
“As a profession, we have to move toward eradicating the phrase “the scientific method” from our vocabulary. Science isn’t some sequence of steps that students follow to discover knowledge, nor is it done in that way – science is a way of knowing that informs how we investigate the natural world around us. We can all think of examples of activities that are clearly “science”, but that don’t follow “the scientific method”.
Chemistry teacher, myheartisstillracing, credits inquiry, project-based science, and a supportive school district that has embraced NGSS, to the phenomenal change in her students’ performance in class:
“When I first started teaching, I used a lot of the materials that were left by a former teacher. (He actually had his own published curriculum.) While the lab activities were thorough and looked really good to my new-teacher eyes, I found that the kids finished the labs and generally had no idea what they had really just done. I mean, they could read directions and answer the questions, but they didn’t TRULY get what concepts they were even investigating. They were “cookbook” labs. Follow the directions and get the appropriate result.
Since then I have transitioned to inquiry-based labs and I am much, much happier with the results. Not every single lab requires a hypothesis-test-prediction statement, but at least they are always asked to think about what they are doing, answer questions about what they did and why, and justify their reasoning. The labs are often simpler and require less fancy equipment
As a bonus? The kids are actually more independent. You’d think that with a full set of directions you’d be able to let the kids loose to get it done and without them they would need more guidance, but the opposite is true. When they were forced to actually start using their brains to think instead of acting on autopilot, their independence skyrocketed.”
The transition from tradition to inquiry-based labs can be daunting and discouraging (considering the time, effort and scope of content to be covered), but several teachers noted that, although it will take more effort and time, it’s well worth it. High School physics teacher, ryeinn, offers a sobering take on the push-back teachers can expect implementing inquiry-based learning, but also has sound advice on how to circumnavigate potential pitfalls:
“I know my district fully supports me doing student designed labs. It does take more time for them to process through it, but it’s worthwhile.
It is “asking a lot” but worth it. Some will hate it. Some will fight you. The key, I’ve found, is constantly making them question their design, but not in a bad way. Make sure they have reasons behind each choice they make. “So, how are you measuring…?” or “Why did you do _____ this way?” or “What are some things that could go wrong in _____ section?”
As the saying goes, the struggle is real. As the teachers in this Reddit discussion noted, teachers need guidance, support from their administrators, innovative professional learning, and inquiry-based curriculum. The old way of teaching science is failing students on all levels. School labs that should be the heartbeat of exciting scientific discovery and debate inspiring future scientists, are instead churning out students being taught to think like robots.
If given the support and the proper tools, success is certain and inspiring. Principal Kim McPherson of Satellite East Middle School in Brooklyn, New York, has implemented NGSS-aligned science curriculum in her school, Project-Based Inquiry Science™ (PBIS). The results, notes Principal McPherson, have been astounding:
“I was in the classroom this morning and I was going from one table to the next and some of the students’ responses and their rich conversations with one another was quite incredible. To see kids in a science class, which is full of buzz, and to see them actually planning a landscape, is quite remarkable because they’re making decisions based on the information that was previously taught by their teacher. That level of ownership is just outstanding. When I asked them what they were doing, they were able to explain to me why they used a particular landscape. I thought that was wonderful! They were able to create their own landscape, but then to have a program that would also give them an opportunity to see what other students just like them were are able to accomplish is fantastic!the kids in our 6th grade science classes can do now what I couldn’t do until college – and that’s remarkable” — Principal Kim McPherson (Great Education Deserves Great Leadership)
As time marches on, and as more states adopt NGSS, innovating the science classrooms and labs, from the curriculum to the equipment will become a priority for schools districts (Cooking Up Science: Innovating School Science Labs for 21st Century Learning). Is your science lab innovative and inquiry-based? What advice would you give leeish0019 and the other teachers in the Reddit discussion who are having trouble innovating their science labs?
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