Having students work in the lab is vital to the success of my curriculum. I try to have my students in the lab on a weekly basis. Because lab use plays such a pivotal role in my classroom, I spend two days at the beginning of the year going over proper lab procedures and policies.
I always require my students to wear safety gear, goggles and aprons, any time we are in the lab, regardless of what we are working with in order to help them develop the automaticity of prepping to work in the lab. I also require my students to pass a lab safety quiz prior to working in the lab. Lab safety can sometimes be a bit dry and boring, but this is definitely a topic where I do not want students to tune out.
I begin by asking my students to think about the concept of rules. I then ask for volunteers to tell me why we have rules. Generally, students are more than willing to volunteer, but I also have a deck of "magic cards" that I regularly use with the students. The "magic cards" include students' basic information and I pick one from the pile and ask the student whose card I am holding to answer the question.
After having a few students respond, I ask the students how they feel when an adult tells them, "Because I said so." Generally the students respond that while they hear the answer frequently, they do not like it. I tell the students that I am not a, "Because I said so" teacher and that I try to explain the reasoning behind the rules and decisions that are made in my classroom. I also tell them that if they do not understand a rule or decision, they are welcome to respectfully ask me about it.
The important aspect of this philosophy is follow through. I am diligent about explaining the reasoning behind rules to students when I tell them rules, just as I explain the reasoning behind assignments and classroom activities. I have found that this helps create a climate of clear expectations and of respect. This also helps students feel like valued members of the classroom and increases their level of participation.
After we have briefly discussed the reasons for rules, I ask the students why it is important to have rules in the science lab. I take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of safety above all else. I tell my scientists that if they cannot function safely in the lab, they will not be allowed to work in the lab. I then display a list of lab safety rules for the students. I read each rule aloud. I then ask a student to explain what could happen if the rule is not followed and to describe the purpose of the rule. This is an effective way to review a few basic science principles as well as covering the rules (NGSS - SP6).
Let's face it, reviewing rules can be a bit boring, so after reviewing the rules, we take a quick field trip into the science lab. I begin by pointing out all of the lab's safety features, such as the eye wash, emergency shower, and fire extinguisher. I am also careful to explain the contexts of use for each item.
I then have the students stand in a group at their lab table and review the contents of the table. I keep a set of basic lab equipment at each table in labeled drawers with a contents card in the top drawer, so students know the number of items that should be in their table. This helps me save time for lab prep. The students go on a mini scavenger hunt of sorts. I ask them to locate various items in their table and hold the item up. I do this for all of the items that I know they have not used during labs in the lower grade levels. That way, instead of me holding up an item, saying its name, and the students forgetting it, they work in small groups to discuss which item to select and are more likely to remember the correct answer.
After our lab tour, we return to the classroom. I hand out and read the lab safety contract to the students. We discuss the meaning of the contract and why it is important to read and understand things before we sign them. Signing the contract is their homework for the evening. I then use the magic cards to place students into partners to create a lab safety poster based on an assigned number. The students will work on the poster in class the next day.