Promoting safety in the middle school science laboratory can be a classroom management nightmare! We all want hands-on/minds-on inquiry, but managing students in the lab can be like herding cats - cats with sharp tools, access to flammable liquids, and a strong desire to just "see what happens if". Since students don't always understand the consequences associated with their decisions and actions in the lab, I make a strong point at the beginning of the year to explicitly teach safety as a part of scientific practice. Since this lesson is based on science practice and nature of science principles, there are no specific content taught. However, there is a link to the crosscutting concept of cause and effect since students explore how events in the science laboratory can cause unintended effects. To help support this understanding over time, throughout every single investigation, we work together to establish and maintain a mindful culture around safety in the laboratory.
In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I have them brainstorm with their lab groups all of the possible "accidents, catastrophes and problems" that could happen in a science laboratory on their Safety Public Service Announcement Group Handout.
The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore laboratory safety and start thinking about safety precautions and consequences, I show several fun, creative, accurate safety videos.
I like to choose videos created by other students since this project will culminate in the creation of their own short public service announcement (PSA). Videos also allow students to practice obtaining and evaluating information from varied sources, which provides another level of rigor through the practice of Common Core literacy skills (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.7).
Following the videos, students regroup to create a list of different safety precautions that they witnessed on the video or can link to their previous list of accidents, catastrophes and problems that could happen in a science laboratory. They record their group list on their Safety Public Service Announcement Group Handout. I find that it is necessary to explain what a precaution is - as it may be unfamiliar vocabulary. I will give an example, like, "Wear safety goggles" as a safety precaution because it is an action that can help prevent an accident like getting burning sulfuric acid in your eye. Examples of student responses are included in the Safety PSA Student Work exemplar.
The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment.
I have student groups explain at least one of the safety precautions they generated. I ask probing questions like, "Why is this precaution important?" and "What would happen if people don't follow this precaution?" in order to evaluate the depth of thinking that is occurring.
The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is the creation of a short (30 seconds - 1 minute) public service announcement about science laboratory safety.
Before planning out their announcements,students rank their safety precautions in terms of importance. By doing this, students are practicing evaluating the information generated so far. The ranking step also allows students to start discussing and collaborating within their lab groups, which begins to build group accountability and responsibility. For another lesson based on the idea of developing group norms and responsibilities, see: Working Together: Creating a Contract for Group Work.
After ranking their safety precautions, students access a shared Google Doc or a physical list in a common area to record the topic for their PSA. Students are not allowed to change other entries on the list and must evaluate the topics to make sure theirs is unique. This process results in PSAs that represent different safety precautions that should be considered rather than ending up with six or eight of the same. The hope is that by the end of the lesson, the class will have generated a useful list of safety precautions that can be used and posted in the lab.
Planning within the design process is also important so that the final product is meaningful and high quality. Students spend time writing a script, identifying resources they will use and checking to make sure they are meeting the requirements:
1. State the safety precaution
2. State and explain the consequences
3. Include a visual aid (video, photo, skit, song, infographic, etc.)
4. Time: 30 seconds - 1 minute
This design process supports students in the practice of several key literacy skills in addition to learning about science practice. They work together to integrate knowledge and ideas (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7) by integrating quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually. Students also engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1), present their knowledge and ideas using multimedia components to clarify presentations (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.5) and develop a topic with relevant, well-chose facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations and other information and examples (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2b).
The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. To accomplish this goal, there are several different approaches I have used.
One way to evaluate students is to have them take the Flinn Safety Exam, which I downloaded from the internet, individually or in groups. The exam is "common sense" as my students like to inform me, so students perform well on it. I often review the exam together as a class as a way to evaluate whether or not the topics students chose for their PSAs are "important enough" to make it on the "official test". This leads to good discussion around trying to develop a list of rules and precautions we can, as a class, live up to. To end the discussion, we sign a contract (Basic Safety Contract or Flinn Safety Contract, which I downloaded from the internet) together that represents our cumulative list of rules and precautions. I require adult signatures as well, so if there are concerns around safety in the future, I can communicate with parents who already know the class expectations.
The other way I evaluate students in ongoing performance assessments during our investigations. Before all investigations, we talk about possible safety concerns and necessary precautions for the specific type of activity we are undertaking. I provide students with posters of safety reminders and written instructions on each lab table.
After investigations, students evaluate themselves and their group members in a "constructive negotiation" that results in a grade for safety that I include in the grade book. By including this science practice as a grade, students realize that safety in the laboratory is an integral part of successful science. Students use the Safety Assessment and the Safety Assessment Student Instructions protocol to facilitate this process. The ability for students to honestly (in most cases) evaluate their participation is a rewarding moment as seen here:
These discussions are a great platform for working with students on specific behavioral objectives during the next laboratory activity.