By Ken Roy
Posted on 2022-01-31
Over the past two years, teachers across the country have been dealing with the learning loss experienced by their students due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting public health crisis. The current public health crisis has required many students and their teachers to stay home from school/work due to isolation, quarantine, or slowed or shuttered schools. The resulting learning loss has affected and will continue to affect the development of our students for years to come. Many teachers are working diligently to try to address these learning losses to help our students reach the academic level that they need to succeed in a hands-on laboratory situation.
Laboratory skills and laboratory safety are two areas of learning loss we cannot forget while focusing on academic goals. For the past two years, students have had either limited or no opportunities for practicing and developing their laboratory skills and resulting safety protocols/practices. The loss associated with this lack of opportunity has been well documented in introductory biology and chemistry classes at the university level.1 Without hands-on laboratory activities, students haven’t been repeatedly reminded of the safety considerations. These must be addressed every time students are in a laboratory situation, to help them develop the safety awareness that is inherent when repeatedly working in a laboratory setting. A lack of this skill development leads to decreased data collection skills and an unsafe teaching/learning environment.
During the pandemic, many educators adopted virtual laboratories; teacher- or student-led demonstrations; and videos to help students learn in the laboratory. These activities helped keep students from contracting the COVID virus and its variants. But now the downside is that science and STEM teachers across the nation have been reporting that their students do not seem to have the expected laboratory skills needed to be successful. This loss of skill development results from students not getting the same hands-on teaching/learning opportunities to develop their laboratory techniques as they did before the pandemic. Laboratory skills typically improve with repetition, and they build upon one another. As students progress through school, they need to use those skills acquired in previous classes and apply them to their current laboratory setting.
Educators need to spend more time and effort teaching students how to use laboratory equipment and materials correctly and safely. Many current high school sophomores are doing hands-on laboratory experiments for the first time. Most of them have not done a meaningful laboratory activity since the beginning of eighth grade. This, of course, assumes that their middle schools were properly equipped to conduct a hands-on laboratory in the first place. Those safety skills that teachers have taken for granted cannot be guaranteed to be present in students who didn’t do hands-on lab work during the pandemic. Therefore, time needs to be incorporated into the laboratory schedule to help students attain the appropriate skill levels that they need to safely work in the laboratory.
This is especially true for higher-level science classes. For example, students may be taking an Advanced Placement (AP)–level science course without ever having conducted a hands-on laboratory in their previous courses. The advanced hands-on laboratory skills required to be successful at the AP level have to be taught, or retaught, to the students so they can succeed in a laboratory environment.
As educators, we need to exhibit more patience in the laboratory. Hopefully, we may be heading toward a more “normal” school environment, but our students are not entering our classrooms with the skills and understanding that we “normally” expect. Teachers must be patient as they help students make up for their learning loss in the laboratory while developing the laboratory skills they missed but are needed to be successful. Even the great coach John Wooden used to teach his outstanding athletes how to put on their socks and shoes at the beginning of each season.2 We must embrace the same attitude and make sure that we do not expect our students to know how to do things properly without ongoing instruction in lab safety basics.
As with the learning loss associated with laboratory skills, we cannot presume students have learned or practiced the necessary laboratory safety skills. In a “normal” year, we would recommend that teachers not assume that the students, or the other adults in the room, know anything about laboratory safety. At best, they may know very little about it. This is especially true this year. As educators are strained for time in the classroom, it is important that they do not eliminate science safety to meet their curricular goals. A reasonable person would not assume that students understand laboratory safety, especially since most of them have not experienced a true hands-on laboratory activity in the last two years. Constant vigilance and attention to detail are a must if we want our science/STEM rooms to be safer places to teach and learn.
The pandemic has presented educators with many new and unconventional challenges. Do not forget the ones that go unnoticed, but are critical. These include the laboratory skills needed to be successful and the laboratory safety awareness that is essential to keeping people safer.
1. Sonbuchner, T. M., E. C. Mundorff, J. Lee, S. Wei, and P. A. Novick. 2021. Triage and recovery of STEM laboratory skills. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22 (1): 22.1.94. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v22i1.2565.
Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.
Safety Blog Acknowledgement. NSTA Chief Safety Blogger Dr. Ken Roy wishes to sincerely thank nationally recognized District Supervisor of Science Kevin S. Doyle, Ed. D., Morris Hills Regional District, Rockaway, New Jersey (email@example.com), for his professional review of and contributions to this commentary.
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