Once you have introductions and classroom logistics out of the way, it’s time to get down to the real meat of your lessons: LABS. But wait! How are you going to ensure that your budding scientists are aware of the dangers that lurk in the science laboratory? Here are some tips to help you survive the chaos of those first few labs and to ensure that your students will watch out for themselves, as well as their classmates.
Make your expectations known. The best way to make sure kids know and do what you expect in your lab is to provide them with clear expectations for behavior and procedures. Lay the ground rules from day one with a Lab Safety contract that holds students accountable for their actions. Go over the rules as a class and have students (and their parents) sign the contract. Having two signatures on this document will ensure that everyone is aware of what is expected, and there are no surprises when a student is reprimanded due to horseplay or not following directions. Turn your rules into posters and hang them around your room as a constant reminder of the appropriate way to act in the lab environment.
Familiarize your students with your lab equipment. Often times, you make the assumption that students know more about lab equipment than they actually do. Try to take the time to introduce your students to each piece of equipment, including it’s purpose, how it’s used, and what could happen if it’s improperly used. At the beginning of the year, our first week of instruction always includes lessons on the proper use of our safety equipment, as well as the use and purpose of glassware, scales and other lab items. You may find that things that seem like simple tasks, such as putting on goggles, measuring the length of a lab desk or weighing a rock, might prove to be a difficult task for a student who has never had practice or observed it being properly done.
Explain the Consequences. One year, we had a student who put a piece of dissection specimen in his mouth and swallowed it. Maybe we should mention that he “pretended” to swallow it. Anyhow, he upheld the claim that he had swallowed it and, of course, we had to believe him. We promptly called the school nurse who called Poison Control and asked us to send the student to her. We were told that the student received a vomit-inducing treatment and that, overall, he would be fine. The point of this story? Students need to be aware of what they should and shouldn’t do in lab – even a little joke can have BIG consequences. To kick off this discussion, get kids thinking about lab safety do’s and don’t’s with a fun comic of lab safety mishaps. Students share a copy of the comic at their tables, make observations about what good and bad lab safety protocol looks like and then discuss as a group. Ask students about what type of practice or equipment could have prevented the accident and then have them sum up the activity by taking one of your lab safety rules and turning it into a story or comic. It really helps students to make that personal connection with the rules and really cements that foundation of safe practices in the lab classroom.
Give them lots of practice. Give students the opportunity to practice with each item before you turn them loose in an actual “real life” lab. Let them measure simple objects like the amount of water in a graduated cylinder or the length of their classmate’s foot. Allow them to “experiment” by giving students harmless substances to describe, weigh, and mix before you let them mix real chemicals. Give them a virtual dissection before you let them cut open an actual specimen. Rotate through student jobs and have students practice taking out lab equipment, preparing slides, cleaning glassware, or leading a group. Give a quiz or have safety drills every month – pick a lab rule or procedure to review or act out. You’ll find that you and your students will be better off with a little practice when the time comes to put it all into action.
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