Looking for ideas on how to teach science lab safety to your middle or high school students? You’ve come to the right place! Here are my top 5 strategies for teaching lab safety rules for science. They are applicable to biology, chemistry, environmental science, integrated science—you name it! These aren’t so much rules for the kids (though you will find plenty of those referenced below). They are rules and tips for you, the science teacher.
Doing science labs is one of the most fun, rewarding parts of science class. What student doesn’t love lab day? For the middle or high school teacher, it can bring stress though, especially if you are struggling with classroom management.
There’s little room for error when managing a room full of students who are dealing with chemicals, fire, and glassware. Yea, that sounds like a recipe for absolute disaster…Fear not.
Teaching tip #1
Rule: Abide by a detailed safety contract
Start with the Flinn lab safety contract for high school students. IMHO, this is the best contract out there as it covers absolutely everything! If you are looking specifically for lab safety in chemistry, this handout is a must. It is incredibly detailed.
FYI: There is also a middle school version of the contract which is more appropriate for, you guessed it, middle school students and perhaps, general integrated science classes or even environmental science classes depending upon what experiments you will be doing.
Should you decide you want to make your own, the Flinn documents are still the best place to start.
If you are teaching biology, for example, you can easily pick out which rules are going to be most relevant to your labs. For instance, you may choose to omit any rules regarding Bunsen burners and fume hoods if you aren’t going to use them.
Be sure to check out the last three questions on the Flinn documents. They ask about allergies, use of contact lenses, and color blindness. These are critical questions for obvious reasons. Don’t forget to include these should you decide to write up your own lab safety contract.
It is also a great idea to ask parents/guardians to provide that information (sometimes kids just aren’t sure). And require their signature (just as Flinn does).
Always read through the safety contracts (with an eye on the three questions above) well before planning your first lab.
Teaching tip #2
Rule: Make sure everyone understands the contract
Spend a few periods reviewing general safety lab requirements prior to doing any lab. Reading the safety contract aloud for 60 minutes may not be the most engaging, effective method. 😉
Here are some ideas for how to make the review engaging and more effective:
- Break students up into groups and let them role play different rules for the class. Alternatively, let groups of students make a short video for the class about a rule (including what dangers await potential rule-breakers). Yes, they will have fun with this one.
- Instruct students to decorate your classroom/lab with safety posters illustrating the rules you want to emphasize. Or have them make a fun cartoon that you can share with the class using a doc cam.
- Include a safety quiz that covers all the rules to ensure students read through the contract carefully.
Teaching tip #3
Rule: Don’t let unsafe behavior slide
Be clear with students that not following the rules will have consequences. I’m a fan of logical consequences. If a student is not following a safety rule, they lose the privilege to continue working in the lab for the period.
That said, I also like to keep a positive classroom vibe and the goal is to keep as many students participating in the lab process as possible. Here’s what I’ve found works:
Everyone starts with 100 points (yay!) for participation on lab day. However, lab safety infractions (like removing your goggles) during the lab will cost students (and their groups).
If I must remind someone to pull their goggles off their forehead (yea, because they always seem to migrate upwards), the group loses participation points. Students have a vested interest in making sure that all group members are wearing googles. I find that they will often remind a lab member before I can even say someone’s name. BAM! Just like that, I no longer find myself nagging students to wear goggles and wondering when I should pull them out of a lab activity.
If a student is making you nervous during a lab though, don’t hesitate to ask them to take a seat or take them aside. Check in with them one-on-one (away from prying eyes). Let them know that you’d love for them to participate, but their lack of compliance is not OK. I usually allow students to come back during the lab make-up session (during a lunch break or afterschool) to try the lab again (granted they follow all safety procedures and are prepared).
This brings me to…
Teaching tip #4
Rule: Always be prepared
Be sure to review the specifics for the lab procedure prior to the lab activity. Because of the potential dangers associated with labs, this is not the time to let students figure it out as they go.
Make sure that students have read through the steps and know which steps may be particularly tricky or require extra care.
It is particularly helpful to model all the steps of the lab to the students. I like to have them read through the steps on their own, but I find that visual aids and modeling are invaluable.
You can also have students highlight/star any steps in the procedure that require extra care (such as disposing of a hazardous material in a chemistry lab so that they remember it cannot go down the drain).
Allow time for students to ask questions before you start the lab. Lab days can be rushed (so much to do in so little time!), but remember haste makes waste. Take time to explain and check for understanding prior to the lab activity. It will make everything run much more smoothly and safely.
And maybe this goes without saying, but I know that teachers are pressed for time… be sure to go through all the steps on your own prior to the period. Even if you have done the lab a million times, it doesn’t guarantee that everything will work this year. It could be the easiest lab ever, but maybe a buffer solution went bad, and the DNA extraction is just not gonna work, and you are going to have 150 disappointed bio students (yes, I’ve been there) …
Teaching Tip #5
Rule: Empower students with clearly defined roles and responsibilities
If you’ve read my previous blog on strategies for classroom management in high school, you know that I’m a fan of using roles in the classroom.
Lab activities are a wonderful opportunity to give your students a set of responsibilities. In turn, they will help you make sure that the lab is a safer, more productive learning environment.
The roles may or may not vary depending upon your context and the lab. For example, you may decide to make one person materials manager. Another may oversee disposal and clean-up. Someone else may oversee reporting data to the class (by filling a chart on the board for example) or be charged with asking the teacher for assistance when needed. One person may be tasked with reading instructions aloud to the group.
Always emphasize that these roles do not mean that the student is solely responsible for these duties; rather, they help the group to carry out the task correctly. They are the ones that take the lead during that part of the experiment or activity.
I hope that these teaching strategies help you to engage your students in fun learning activities in your lab safely! Lab safety rules and classroom management during science lab may seem daunting, but there are lots of free resources to help you (nudge, go look at the Flinn contracts).
Finally, a bonus (because you’ve made it this far and read through all of my five lab safety rules and tips for teachers). I am a big fan of using videos in the classroom (what teacher isn’t?!) and there are some fabulous ones for lab safety in chemistry, biology, etc.
Bonus: My favorite lab safety videos
General Lab Safety by the Amoeba Sisters
Puppets Demonstrating Safe and Unsafe Behavior (minimal narration, but funny and to the point)
Zombie College: The Five Rules of Lab Safety
Is there a video that you love? Or a teaching strategy that I missed? One lab safety rule that you feel you always need to reinforce? Share in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from your science classrooms.
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