Science, Education, and Science Education

classroom applications
October 10th, 2011 by Luann

Writing and the Lab Report

Oregon requires students to complete an inquiry work sample (here’s the one we will use this year) at some time during high school.  Our classes function on an inquiry basis at some level almost daily.  I’ve played with many strategies to help students write about their work in a manner that facilitates their learning while documenting their work in a manner that survives the scrutiny of a scientific peer review.

Most recently, I’ve incorporated the work began with Linda Christensen (from Lewis and Clark) and the Oregon Writing Project. Freshmen begin keeping all lab and inquiry work in a bound theme book, AKA fondly as “my lab book.” My vision for the appearance of student lab books has morphed over the years.  Some things change very little, though, because good science is good science and good science writing is good science writing. At my current school, I’m blessed with like-minded colleagues who have helped me refine my vision as it is shared in this post. Here’s our current plan…..

Students have been introduced to basic lab safety, wearing chemical splash goggles whenever heat, glassware, or chemicals are present on their shared lab bench.  They’ve measured volume and mass, and viewed wet mounts of their own construction with a compound microscope. This first lab will be their introduction to inquiry in high school science. It’s designed to model hypothesis testing as inquiry, and includes all the components needed to show that state standards for inquiry are met.  The lab is written in a format found in peer-reviewed science journals and shared as such so that students have a guide for future independent work.

In this investigation, students test various foods for organic molecules in this first inquiry; protein is identified by its reaction with Biuret solution, starch by its reaction with Lugol’s iodine, and simple sugars by their reaction with Benedict’s solution. Students have built models of each of these organic molecules, drawn structures, learned a bit about the importance and function of each in cells and in living things, and know something about food sources of each from their health classes.  Bored yet?  Thanks for hanging in with me.

And now – the inquiry:

Day 1: Using a prewritten introduction, students identify types of information gleaned from the introduction. We compare a list of their observations to a pre-fab criteria sheet, constructed to align with the criteria sheets used by language arts teachers.  Students color-code the model introduction using crayons, colored pencils, hi-lighters, or colored pens to provide a visual of the criteria, all included and working together. This is also a review of the content our state expects students to master. We discuss together their choices for placing particular statements in particular categories.  We notice, for example, that definitions may be strategically placed throughout their writing, making explanations available to the reader as needed.  We learn what type of statements belong to each listed criteria, and we learn that sometimes a statement might belong to more than one criterion. Each test is demonstrated. (This may also take place again on Day 2.)

Day 2: Students learn to prepare a lab book.  They use MSDS to identify and record safety hazards, and learn what must be done prior to going to the lab bench; we don’t just get a handout from the teacher and cookbook our way to a few correct answers to submit. This time, and this time only, the prefab introduction may be stapled into the lab book – after this, each student group will do their own research and write their own introductions according to the general criteria sheet format. Students add the materials lists, procedure, and data tables to their books, and draw out a diagram for each test they will do in the procedure to give them a visual anchor.

Day 3: Lab day.  Students are encouraged to photograph their results, and I do as well. It’s helpful if any labels on test tubes are clearly visible.

Day 4: We discuss results, with photos of lab results projected on a screen for reference.  Students answer analysis questions and write a conclusion using the Conclusion Criteria Sheet (page 3 of Materials, Procedure handout).

Day 5: Labs are peer-reviewed using the criteria sheets as guidelines.  Students read one anthers’ lab books, write strengths and suggestions on small slips of colored paper (Post-its are nice but too expensive), and return the work to the author for additions and revisions.  Revisions are written on slips of another color and attached in the appropriate place in the lab.  There is no scoring penalty for making these revisions.  The point is to learn.

What’s wrong with this plan?  Nothing, I suppose.  It has all the components students need to learn to write and  perform an experimental inquiry. Students have a sample format with all the components, all the content they really need to know, a list of materials needed, a sample procedure, and sample data tables.

Here’s what they DONT have:  resources beyond one selected textbook or an opportunity to collaborate or learn from one anothers’ work.  An opportunity to add creativity to their work based on their own personal questions or observations. The “Four ‘Cs” of 21st Century learning, Collaboration, Creativity and innovation, Communication, and, t a large extent, Critical Thinking. They also must meet new Common Core Standards in language arts with pencil and paper. Most labs also involve measurement and quantitative analysis, incidentally supporting math standards.

These students need access to technology, both for information procurement and content creation.  Desperately.

The actual work sample this year can be found here. Stay tuned for results.

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