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November 2016 | Tech Tips
Simple Technology Strategies to Improve the Lab Experience
By Kaleb Underwood
Demos & Labs, Technology Integration
Increased use of “technology in the classroom” is one of the buzz phrases that has become all too familiar to educators in recent years. Unfortunately, many generic strategies offered by school and district administrators do not benefit the learning of chemistry and use technology for the sake of technology, without adding any educational value. This is my first year at a new school where every student is issued a laptop. So before the school year began, I had to reevaluate my practices to take full advantage of students’ access to technology.
Following are some strategies that I have implemented to help students analyze laboratory data more effectively and to connect the macroscopic, and particulate, representations of chemistry. You do not need to be in a one-to-one environment to use these strategies; none of them require each student to have their own computer.
“Your class is kind of like the scientific method.” – First-Year Chemistry Student
In years past, I have forgone doing an experiment because students who got “bad data” wouldn’t draw the right conclusions and therefore would have misconceptions. I was inspired at BCCE in Colorado this past summer to use Google Forms so that lab groups can report and share their data with the entire class. Google Forms allows you to input data in a variety of ways, and it will generate histograms or pie charts that you can then use for class discussion. You have the choice of sending the Google Form to each of your students, posting a link on a website, or having a laptop available in the classroom for students to input data. Another way to get a large sample of data is to collaborate with other classes on the same Google Form. The other classes don’t even need to be in your school—for my students’ first lab of the year we shared data with a chemistry class in Indiana, and my students are in Texas!
In the lab activity, students performed six different procedures to investigate mass conservation and the concepts of open and closed systems. I was astounded by how much the dynamic of the classroom changed due to recording data in Google Forms. With a large amount of data compiled in the form, students were able to better examine the merits of various claims based on their observations. For example, when students dissolved sugar in water, they assumed that the mass would not change, but most of the data showed a decrease in mass of 0.01 – 0.09 g. Students discussed that the last number shown on the balance continuously changed, which served as a perfect connection for a lesson on precision a few days later. They also noted that some sugar was seen on the lab table after the transfer. Both of these are valid observations that allowed students to conclude that the mass did not change.
No longer were students who got “bad data” likely to draw the wrong conclusion. When they determined the explanation for the “bad data,” they bolstered their understanding of the concept the lab was demonstrating. They also saw firsthand the benefits of large data sets as opposed to solitary results.
Using Google Forms and collaborating with other classes gave my students the opportunity to draw conclusions based on a large body of evidence (i.e., claim, evidence, and reasoning) and explain data that did not follow the trend. My classes have analyzed more data and learned how to explain it this year than ever before. As an added benefit, my collaborators and I now have data that we can continue to build on and use for years to come.
I highly encourage you to implement this practice rather than a more formal approach to teaching the scientific method. My intent is to allow students to collect and discuss real data so they can learn by practice how scientists draw conclusions and how claims are defended with evidence. I believe a more traditional method is not as engaging for students and is dramatically simplistic. It is my hope that this leads to a better understanding of how a scientific claim is made and how to have healthy skepticism when looking at data. And if you teach students in AP courses, this tool is beneficial because it prepares student to provide explanations for erroneous data on lab questions.
Videos for Pre-Lab Preparation
Time is the most oppressive enemy that a teacher has. When content has to be covered and there is a lack of time, what is one of the first things to go? Labs. This year I am integrating videos to improve the laboratory experience.
A typical lab in my classroom begins with students watching a video at home via edpuzzle.com. This is an excellent free resource that allows you to embed questions in videos to check for understanding. You are also able to track whether students have watched the video. Videos either include a discussion of the theory behind the lab or an introduction to any new apparatus that students may be using, so they are familiar with the lab as soon as they walk into class.
Simulations to Build Understanding
Simulations are a great resource for use either before, after, or in combination with a lab. I often use simulations from Concord Consortium and PhET. Concord has two excellent simulations about diffusion (Diffusion and Temperature and Diffusion of a Drop),
which can be used to enhance a discussion after demonstrations about
the topic. When I teach this topic, I demonstrate the diffusion of
Febreze spray in the classroom and the diffusion of food dye in
different temperature water baths. The simulations help students connect
their macroscopic observations with a particulate-level explanation.
Without much input from me, they are able to derive for themselves the
Kinetic Molecular Theory.
In AP Chemistry, my students complete a redox titration and a spectrophotometry simulation before completing wet labs on these topics. This allows us to discuss the theory behind two procedures that are fundamental to chemistry but tend to be confusing for students. When students use these simulations prior to lab work, I find they are more able to articulate the purpose of the lab and interpret the data more accurately. In fact, during their first spectrophotometry lab, students caught an error in their methods because of the strong conceptual understanding they had developed thanks to the simulation.
Concord and PhET simulations are now more accessible on all devices because many have been updated to HTML5. AACT is growing a well-curated sample of simulations as well. One of my personal favorites is the Heating Curve of Water, which I use as a powerful post-lab assignment. Students complete an inquiry lab and create a heating curve of water and a cooling curve of lauric acid. This simulation allows students to connect the graph with relevant calculations as well as particulate level representations of the phases of matter that are present at each stage.
“Chemistry is necessarily an experimental science: its conclusions are drawn from data, and its principles supported by evidence from facts.” –Michael Faraday
The technology integration strategies that I have outlined here are designed to give students the ability to interact with chemistry in the way that Faraday describes. The main benefits I see from these strategies are the ability to engage students in discussion about real data and bolster the teaching power of the laboratory by allowing students to focus on the chemistry while not being lost in a procedure.
I look forward to hearing from anyone who has any thoughts or ideas to share. Feel free to contact me personally or use the discussion board so other teachers can engage as well.