How to write your own lab

I was a teaching assistant in grad school when I wrote my first lab.  We’d been given a lab notebook by the university to use with our students, but after the first couple of labs it became clear that my students weren’t understanding what it said.  The first lab I ever wrote was a restatement of one of these labs into understandable terms, with an intro section that simplified the topic.

As I recall, I got in trouble for using the phrase “the damn stopcocks don’t always work, so don’t be afraid to use some muscle to turn them.”  I’ll admit that perhaps I could have phrased it better.

My students liked these labs, so I started to make bigger changes.  By the time the semester was over, my students were finishing three hour labs in 90 minutes and aced the lab practical.  More importantly, they understood the science and had a good time in lab.

The next experience I had with writing my own labs came with my first high school teaching job.  I was given the task to teach 35 remedial students an entire year of high school chemistry in three weeks, in the basement of a church that had no lab and no budget.  It was here that I learned to really create my own labs, using materials that I had accessible to me and that I could safely work with in an ordinary classroom.  This did, as you can imagine, require some creativity.

At this point, I haven’t used any labs that I didn’t actually write for about 15 years.  I like controlling what my students learn and how they learn it.  I like knowing that the equipment and chemicals that my students need are easily accessible.  And most of all, I like posting my stuff online and sharing it.

This leads to the question at hand:  How can anybody write their own lab?  There’s no really good answer to this, but hopefully the suggestions below will help:

  1. Check to see if you actually need to write your own lab.  There are a lot of good labs out there on the internet (most of them on my site), so make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel.  If you teach at a school with very few resources, I recommend looking at homeschool websites because they are experts at making do with kitchen chemistry.
  2. Substitute lab equipment.  If you need to heat something, you don’t always need a Bunsen burner.  You can use a hot plate or steam bath as a heat source.  You can also use ovens, propane stoves, and alcohol burners for many things.  Figure out what you’ve got available and make it work.  In the same vein, coffee cups can take the place of crucibles, drinking glasses can take the place of beakers, and reagent bottles can be fashioned from bottles for subscription medicine or eye drops.
  3. Substitute chemicals.  If you’ve got no ability to deal with hazardous waste, you may find it useful to substitute something dangerous with something that’s less so.  If you’re dehydrating a salt, use Epsom salts instead of copper sulfate.  If you’re looking at combustion reactions, use something relatively safe like rubbing alcohol rather than more flammable liquids.  If you’re doing “like dissolves like”, plain old sugar and salt will teach the idea nicely.  I almost never buy chemicals because I can get away with using stuff from the grocery store, saving my school money and making my lab a safer place.
  4. Don’t be afraid to screw around.  If you think something might work, give it a shot. If you’ve got an honors class, have them invent a lab for you using whatever they can find.  If you play with the chemistry, you can’t go wrong!
  5. Safety first!  Never, ever skimp on safety measures.  Best safety practices are vital no matter what chemicals you’re working with, so even if you’ve done all of your shopping at the 7-11, make sure everybody wears goggles.

Anyhow, I hope this helps you to write your own labs in the future.  And remember to really put some muscle into those damn stopcocks.

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