Meet your students part way. Students are not born with the knowledge of how to act and handle inquiry based and cooperative learning. These skills need to be taught. Slowly introduce inquiry based learning by starting with hands-on “cook book” labs and replacing sections with inquiry activities. Teach cooperative learning skills such as sharing, helping others learn, contributing ideas and focusing on an instructor after an independent portion.
Invest time in activity design and creating questions. A well designed activity with appropriate questions allows the students to be inquiry learners. They will teach each other and themselves as they work through the activity. Your role as an educator becomes that of a facilitator.
Be a facilitator. The role of an educator in inquiry based learning is that of a facilitator. This means that you have to let students explore for themselves. Learn how to be a facilitator and where the balance is for your class.
Invest in preparation time. It may take you longer to prepare for inquiry based activities but it is well worth the effort. Taking the extra time will result in less stress during the activity. Preparation includes the activity, materials, classroom, and your students. Prepare your students by teaching them the needed skills. Also plan your groups according to your goal for the activity. Prepare your classroom by organizing it for group activities and making sure all needed safety equipment is available and functioning.
Use your resources. Educators are still learning everyday. Consult books on cooperative learning to learn more about classroom management and other techniques. Jigsaw groups, think-pair-share, and other cooperative learning activities may be useful in your classroom. Classroom management resources are also useful.
Label and reuse materials. Although it may seem like a lot of work to label all of your materials, it will save time in the end. Besides being environmentally friendly, reusing saves you money and will save you time later. It is important to label materials because you never know what reactions could occur when containers are used for different substances. For example, using a cup which once held borax to scoop sand later makes the sand very basic, which may ruin a pH activity. Labeling materials also demonstrates good science practice.
Make your own. Think cheap. Buying materials gets very expensive. Be creative and make your own or find cheap alternatives. Cut the top off of a plastic soda bottle to make a funnel. Mark clear cups to create a great substitute for graduate cylinders. Use clear egg cartons or bead sorter plates (found at craft stores) instead of well plates. Poke holes in the bottom of a plastic cup to create a strainer. Stack clear take out trays to draw on and create topographical maps. There are many other creative, cheap substitutions to expensive lab materials. Let us know any ideas that you have!
Think mobile. Plan your materials so that they transport easy. If measuring is not a skill you are focusing on, pre-measure materials into ramekins (like those you get sauce in at restaurants). These materials can then be labeled, stacked, and easily passed out. Use trays to hold materials for groups. When the activity is done, a tray simply needs to be removed to get all of the materials out of students hands. Place materials for different materials on different carts. Then it is easy to switch from one to another for different classes.
Think safety. Use plastic instead of glass whenever possible. Also, try conducting activities that do not produce any hazardous waste. Waste disposal is timely, sometimes expensive, and often an unnecessary hazard.
Let students help clean. Students should help clean up after a lab. Students can rinse and store most of their materials. Try laying newspaper or plastic garbage bags on desks to reduce the amount of cleaning needed. These table coverings can simply be lifted and the debris on top dumped in the trash. You can often reuse these as well. You will save a lot of time if your students help you to clean up their stations. Just remember, you must teach them how to clean up!
Try it yourself. You should never try an activity with a class that you have not tried yourself. Trying the activity beforehand helps you to trouble shoot potential safety issues, improve the design of the activity and be prepared to be a good facilitator.
Have extras. Science does not always go as planned. Have extra materials in case a group needs to retry their experiment. Also make sure to have extras of the final product if possible. For example, if the class is making silly putty have a couple of extra bags of silly putty made before hand. This way if a student’s silly putty does not come out he or she will not leave empty handed.
See the positives in “failure”. The science will always work but sometimes our experiments do not go as planned. If your silly putty failed to form or seeds did not sprout, you did not fail. Try to figure out why your experiment did not occur like you wanted. Finding out why something did not happen is often as important as knowing why it did.
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