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.

How the elements are used in daily life

Now that your students know what the elements are, how can we show them what they’re actually used for?

I’m glad you asked.  On the site “The Periodic Table of the Elements, in Pictures and Words“, Keith Enevoldsen has made a very simple interactive periodic table that shows what the elements are good for.  If you’ve got a few minutes in class someday, I’d recommend letting your students check it out.  If you’re interested in other things periodic and orbital related, his main site is good for that, too.

(Thanks to Mental Floss for posting this site and bringing it to my attention.  If you haven’t seen them, check it out.)

The Election as Teachable Moment

Many teachers are unhappy that Donald Trump is now President-elect of the United States.  Whether you like Mr. Trump or hate him, you’ve got to admit that this election has caused a lot of bad feelings on all sides.  The students in my class this morning were overwhelmingly afraid of a Trump presidency and believed that it may be an end to America as we know it.

As a teacher, it’s not my job to share my political views with my students.  It is, however, my job to teach them things.  And today, even though I’m not a civics teacher, I taught them that a Trump presidency won’t destroy America.

We were all taught about checks and balances in high school.  Put simply, each of the three branches of the government (executive, legislative, and judicial) exercises some control over the others, ensuring that the government can’t spin out of control.  If you believe this is the case – and 240+ years of American history suggest it is – you’ve got to accept that no matter how badly Mr. Trump’s presidency goes, our nation will survive it.  But, you may say, the legislative branch is Republican and he’ll get to appoint Supreme Court justices.  Won’t they get together and end the country?  If you believe that the people we’ve elected are terrible people, then yes, it’s possible that we could get some nutty things going on.  However, most people of either party aren’t terrible, and won’t put up with most of the dire scenarios we’re most afraid of.

And if they do, there’s such a thing as the constitution.  No matter how nutty things get, there are simply some things we cannot do.  Sure, we’ve done some strange things with how we’ve interpreted the constitution in the past, but for the most part we’ve done a nice job of following it.

But what happens if the constitution is overthrown?  If that’s the case, America will no longer be America.  And frankly, it’s hard to imagine anybody thinking that’s a good idea.

If you’re afraid of our future president, remember that our system has been set up specifically to deal with situations like this.  If you believe in America, you have to believe that things will work out.

Teach our students about America, and who we are.

Looking stupid for the kids

From a very young age, kids are told that they’re not capable of making decisions for themselves.  Moms and dads like to speak for their children, teachers like to tell the kids to sit down and be quiet, and older people generally think that teenagers are all either going to murder or have sex with anything that moves.  Fortunately, the story goes, as soon as you get older (18, 21, or something like that), you magically have conferred upon you the wisdom to make your own choices.

I understand the general sentiment here.  I doubt anybody thinks that kids have the experience to make all of the decisions that affect them.  However, kids are able to make decisions from a very early age, and as they grow older they get better and better at it.

The reason I bring this up is that when we tell kids that only adults can fully make good decisions, we clearly show ourselves to be out to lunch.  Here are some examples from the past week about how we adults do a staggeringly poor job of making good choices:

  • Ted Cruz gave a big speech in front of the Republican National Convention to not endorse Donald Trump for president.  I completely understand why Mr. Cruz would loathe Mr. Trump, but it’s hard to imagine why he thought he had been allowed to speak in the first place.
  • Wikileaks showed that the Democratic National Committee, while trying to appear unbiased, actively tried to torpedo Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.  And, by the way, badmouthed their donors while doing so.
  • Members of both parties have been fervently ranting about how awful Hillary Clinton is.  I don’t like her either, but screaming/heckling during the conventions doesn’t make anybody look like they’re interested in making a good point.

I give these examples not because I’m a fan of either Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton, but because these examples show how seriously we adults treat the election of the next president of the United States.  Yep, we seem to think that screaming about how Mr. Trump is a Nazi, or about how Ms. Clinton is a criminal, is a good way to select the leader of the free world.

How can a kid not feel like we’ve been pretending to be rational the whole time?

Here’s a challenge for everybody during the next few weeks and months:

  • Let a child make a decision.  It can be a big decision or a little one, but make sure he or she actually gets to practice thinking for themselves.
  • Let a child see you being reasonable.  If there’s something you need to figure out, let a child see that you’re using reason to solve the problem.  That is, after all, what we want them to do.
  • Special election challenge:  Don’t be an idiot.  If you’re a supporter of Mr. Trump, try to make your case without referring to Ms. Clinton as corrupt or as a criminal.  If you’re a supporter of Ms. Clinton, try to make your case without calling Mr. Trump an inexperienced loose-cannon.  In other words, try to focus on what you believe, rather than on what you hate.

And, as always, get out of the swimming pool if you hear thunder.

Homeschool (?)

I just read an interesting article about homeschooling on one of the many Gawker-branded sites.  Though I’m not a homeschooler myself, I have talked back and forth with several homeschoolers in the past few weeks who have convinced me that it’s doable.  Not something that I want to do, but something that can be done if people have the right motivation and interest.

In any case, have a read here:  It may not be your cup of tea, but it’ll at least give you an idea of where homeschoolers are coming from.


We’ve all seen news stories that involve the arrest of students for carrying weapons.  A 6-year-old boy was sent to an alternative school for troubled youth after taking a cub scout multitool to school (link).  Two high school students were arrested for having knives in their car in the school parking lot (link).  We’ve read the stories in the paper and wondered how kids could get in trouble for such incidents.

At the same time, nobody wants kids to have weapons in school.  Clearly, the possession of weapons is dangerous and can cause serious incidents.  Given these contradictory positions, what should we do?

It’s simple:  Strictly ban weapons in schools.  At the same time, define the word “weapon.”

It’s fortunate for us that these have both already been done.  It’s obvious that weapons are banned in schools by the universal policies against weapons possession.  Unfortunately, the term “weapon” isn’t very clear.

Here it is, according to most sources (though I use a Wikipedia quote because the Creative Commons license allows it):

A weapon, arm, or armament is any device used with intent to inflict damage or harm to living beings, structures, or systems. 

In other words, a weapon is not a thing.  Instead, a weapon is a thing intended to cause harm to other things.

Most of the things that have caused school punishments have been tools, which are objects designed to get something done.  This is an important distinction.  While all weapons are tools (they’re designed to do something), all tools are not weapons (in that a tape measure can’t be used to murder somebody).

This is an important distinction in this age of zero tolerance.  Let’s go back to the examples I mentioned earlier:

  • The six-year-old boy’s knife was actually a Cub Scout multitool that contained a knife, fork, and spoon for the purposes of eating on campouts.  In other words, it was a tool for eating.
  • The high school kids busted for knives in their cars had just been fishing and used their pocketknives to cut fishing line.  In other words, they were recreational tools.

I figured I’d take a look at a list of worldwide knife-related deaths in schools over the past 20 years.  What I found was interesting.  Of the 34 incidents that warranted mention, only four of them were committed by students.  Another four incidents were committed by teachers or staff, with the remaining 26 committed by adults who came into the school.

Not exactly an unstoppable wave of student violence.

However, no matter how we spin it, we come back to the issue of “how do we know the difference between a weapon and a tool in the hands of a student?”  The answer:  Context.

Let’s have a look at some possible examples, and the sorts of judgements we can make about them:

  • A student with a Swiss Army Knife is very unlikely to use this tool to stab another student to death (note:  In my research I found that only one folding knife has been used in a school assault in the past 20 years – in the entire world.)  As a result, students with Swiss Army Knives should be left alone.
  • A student with a machete is probably using it as a weapon.  Common sense tells us that there aren’t many jungles to cut paths through in most high schools, which means that the most likely use for this tool is as a weapon.
  • A student with a gun in a school can be assumed to be using this as a weapon for harming others.  This isn’t because guns are inherently evil – it’s because there’s no legitimate purpose for anybody unrelated to law enforcement to have a gun in schools.  Guns may not be evil, but it’s safe to assume that people who wave them around probably are.

Of course, there are gray areas here.  What if a student went deer hunting and left a rifle in their car?  What happens if a gang member brings a sharpened screwdriver to school? These circumstances don’t require rules to sort them out – they require common sense. If common sense isn’t enough to work things out, the legal system is nicely designed to work it out for us.

This common sense approach can be applied to zero tolerance policies in general.  For example, drugs should be forbidden in schools, while medication should not.  The kids above who got busted for having knives in their car were also in trouble for possessing drugs, namely Advil.  I’ve also heard of kids getting busted for possession of cough drops and nasal spray.  Anybody who seriously thinks these are worthy of the same treatment as heroin is seriously out to lunch.

I’ve mentioned common sense above, but this leads to a very reasonable question:  Whose common sense should be used to judge permissible from impermissible items?  That’s simple:  Ours.

Teachers and administrators should be be the judges of what is permissible and what is not.  We teachers are supposedly professionals whose job is to use our best judgement to assist our students in learning and growing as individuals.  If a teacher can’t tell the difference between a penknife and a broadsword, perhaps they should find a less-challenging profession.

Realistically, I don’t expect these reforms to ever be enacted.  To enable them would make politicians seem soft on crime and would force them to admit that teachers aren’t the cause of all society’s ills.  However, wouldn’t it be nice if we were allowed to use common sense?