Cutting Corners - 9 Time & Energy Savers for the Science Lab

Great list of time savers for doing labs in the science classroom
Labs are the epitome of science class. They provide meaningful, real-life experiences in a hands-on manner which allows students to dig deeper into the material. They are wonderful learning opportunities for students, but boy are they time consuming for teachers! The prep work to create and set up the lab, buying (sometimes expensive) materials, getting students familiar with the background information and procedure, going over safety precautions, the lab time itself, the review of concepts they should come away with, and lastly clean up can be overwhelming and exhausting. Labs are always 100% worth the effort but they can be a daunting task, especially if you are required to do labs several times a week.

We thought long and hard about how we made lab time work for us, especially when it comes to set up and take down. Below is a list we've come up with that will help you cut corners to save time and energy, but not at the cost of the lab experience itself.

1. Team work: Chances are you collaborate with several other science teachers in the same grade level. Why not plan ahead and come up with several labs each month that ALL of you will do with your classes. Share the responsibility of set up, best practices, and clean up, especially if you have a common lab space.  The team can set up when the first class is ready to experiment and clean up when the last class of the week is done. This setup also allows you to share lab equipment, consumables, and other supplies. If something is expensive, split the cost amongst the lot of you and save some cash.

2. Student helpers: If you have kids you trust and they have a free period or maybe have finished a test early in another class, by all means, ask if they can assist you! Start this process early on in the year and you'll find yourself with a handful of students you can trust to follow your directions implicitly. Maybe they can even arrive to school early to help or stay late to clean up. Better yet, start a science lab or experimentation club and part of their duties is assisting you in the prep work! Kids get great experience learning lab materials and procedures and you save time!

3. Parent assistance:  As middle grades teachers, we are less likely to reach out to the parents of our students to ask for help. We're here to tell you to DO IT! Send out an email blast or newsletter requesting materials, donations, volunteers, and if your school would allow, money to purchase the things you need for your room. You might be surprised by how many responses you get from stay at home parents, working moms and dads, grandparents, and even aunts and uncles who would LOVE to spend a day or class period in your room assisting you, especially if they can see their child in the school environment.  This will really come in handy during dissection days when more than one pair of eyes is essential with all of those sharp instruments!

4. Lab stations to the rescue:  Everyone will tell you that lab stations are a must in the middle school classroom. When designing your classroom layout, envision how you would want labs to flow.  Identify your stations with a number, name or some other moniker that will be easily referred to throughout the year.  Then, think about how students will use the stations:  will students remain at one station, or will they move from station to station?  Will they have multiple microscopes to view at their station, or will they have several slides that they will need to swap out as they progress through the lab?  Will students always be assigned to the same station or rotate?  Whatever you decide, know that you can always switch it up depending on the type of lab you are implementing.  

5. Review labs ahead of time:  Go over safety protocol, materials, procedures and expectations the day before the lab.  At the end of the day's lesson, give your students a quiz.  The purpose of this exercise is threefold:  1) Students will already be prepared for the lab the moment they walk in the door the next day,  2) your lab quizzes will let you know if students are truly prepared for the lab, and 3) your quizzes will serve as a perfect guide for creating your lab group leaders - those students who can help facilitate the lab tomorrow with their peers.  

6. Make it visible:  A great way to make sure your students know what they are supposed to be doing when they walk into the room is to project the lab directions on the board, or if technology isn't available, have a copy of the lab directions at each station.  You can also use your projector in a pinch to find microscope or dissection images on the Internet.  Project them to the front of the room to show students what they need to be looking for, or use them for a virtual teacher-led microscope or dissection lab when supplies are limited.

7. Prep lab materials in advance:  In order to ease the stress of set up, we used to arrive to school early the day of the lab to make sure everything was in order. If this doesn't work out, set aside time at the end of the day to prep so when you walk in the next morning, the room is organized and you're not panicking to get things ready.  One key thing we did for our labs was to make our slides and pre-cut our dissection specimen.  For example, if you're doing the famous "e" lab, make your slides in advance by cutting out your newspaper e's and taping them to a glass or plastic slide with a little piece of scotch tape.  For frog or earthworm dissections, shave some time off of the actual "dissection" portion by making the first few major ventral and transverse incisions in your students' specimens, giving them more time to explore the specimen and make meaningful connections with the material they are learning rather than rushing through the lab to get finished.  

8. Get organized: remember you will probably do this lab again next year. After a lab is completed, don't hurriedly stuff things back into your closet. Take the time to organize your lab closet by topic covered. Take your supplies from each experiment and keep them together in a tub or bin. Label the bin with the name of the lab and even place a folder with your lab handouts in the bin just in case your paper filing system fails you. This way, the following year, your activities are grab and go!

9. Plan for the future:  Once you have a few years of teaching under your belt, you'll hopefully have a general idea of what you want to teach and how you want to teach it. Create a planner or calendar and visualize the topics you would like to cover and activities you would like to do and realistically fit them into your schedule. Once you do this, you can ensure that there are no surprises. Get lab equipment and supplies in advance, send out notes and emails home if you need assistance, and make sure copies are made and materials are ready to go for lab day. 

We hope this list will help keep you on the track to running a smooth and efficient science classroom. Got any other helpful tips? Please comment below and let us know!

Next time we'll tell you a little bit about how we fit lab experiences into shortened or altered class periods and make the most of the small amount of time we have for experimentation in the middle grades!



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  3. Thank you for all these great ideas. I am very interested in the lab quizzes that are done the day before the lab. Can you share an example or do a post on your lab quizzes (#5 in the blog post) so I can get a better idea of how these are created and used?