12 Jul 2013

Of Lego and Lab Reports

by L. E. Carmichael

When I'm not home writing kids' books, I work at the Saint Mary's University Writing Centre in Halifax. Our mission is to help students become better writers, and since I

  • taught lab courses as a grad student,
  • published a dozen professional papers from my PhD research,
  • am the Writing Centre's official science nerd,
I'm in charge of the Lab Report Workshop.

Proof students are actually listening!
Many students hate writing lab reports. They don't see the point of recapping an experiment whose results are known a priori, and many of them are dismayed to discover that writing is a part of science at all. As one told me in a tone of abject disgust: "I didn't go in to science because I wanted to learn to spell."

As science educators, how do we get students excited, not just about doing experiments, but communicating their results?

I usually start my workshops by telling students how lab reports were invented - by chemist Robert Boyle, who in 1660 cofounded the Royal Society of London, where scientists met to share their experiments and discuss their ideas. For those who couldn't attend meetings, Boyle reasoned, why not write stuff down? That way, scientists all over the world would be able to repeat new experiments and see the results for themselves.

Once my students understand that lab reports aren't just for marks, they're how professional scientists talk to each other, I break out the Lego.

That's right, I said Lego.

Never too old to play with Lego
Each group gets 6 pieces and 15 minutes. They record their steps as they build something. Then they break it down and pass the components, and instructions, to the next group. Each group gets 15 minutes to repeat the build based on the written Methods.

I can't take credit for this idea, which the Centre's director encountered at a conference. I can tell you that it works like a charm. In a haze of childhood nostalgia, students play with toys, competing to see who can create the most interesting design from their alloted pieces. After the switch, among good-natured ribbing about illegible handwriting and sabotaged instructions, they suddenly realize just how much detail a Methods section needs to make an experiment truly reproducible. And while they came to the workshop skeptical and bored, they leave still talking about it.

What about you, science teachers? How do you get your kids excited about lab reports? How do you teach them the difference between Results and Discussion, and what information goes where? Share your strategies in the comments - I'm always looking for a new approach!


L. E. Carmichael writes for K-12 on everything from gene therapy to hybrid cars. Coming August 2013: FOX TALK: How Some Very Special Animals Helped Scientists Understand Communication

No comments: