Distilling The Cost/Benefit of Physical Science/Food Labs

February 4, 2012 at 9:57 PM Leave a comment

In the set of lab rules I inherited from perhaps, Sir Francis Bacon himself is #5 “Never eat in the lab.” It goes against the grain of old science teachers like me. But then, this is middle school, not AP Chem, and our job is different.

I’m aiming to give students a good foundation that they can build on if they choose to take physics or chemistry in high school. For those who don’t, 8th grade physical science is it for formal instruction, preparing them to make decisions around say, energy issues in their homes and on the ballot, about pesticides and plastics, about road safety, and on and on.

For students on both paths, engagement and confidence around physical science concepts are key. If you don’t like the subject, if you see it as irrelevant to your life or the world, you’ll neither choose to take it further nor will you apply it to your own decisions.

So far, we have use food-based labs to reinforce, review and apply concepts, rather than teach them for the first time: Density and buoyancy with ‘11.Salad Dressing Science’. Phase changes and effects of salt with “9. WeScreamForIceCreamGMH v2”. How to separate solutions using different boiling points of the components with “11. Reduction Sauces”.  Coming up is “The Pancake Lab” for physical vs chemical changes.

Since the Ice Cream Lab blog post, we’ve given the States of Matter assessment and have thought more carefully about the costs and benefits of cooking in class:

  1. Our test scores on an academic, standards-based States of Matter unit quiz were better than last year when I didn’t use these labs. Can’t speak to Density and Buoyancy as we used a very different test this year.
  2. Student’s ability to apply states of matter concepts to their photographs of changing states of water (weather-related and kitchen photos mostly), were generally well done.
  3. The level of student engagement in the food labs is noticeably higher than in other labs. No big surprise there. But more than being excited by eating, they behaved better and were more on-task.
  4. Their ability to follow the )*&&^%&^% directions has improved a bit. Because if you don’t, the food tastes nasty.
  5. Fashionable, popular girls and all kinds of kids who like The Food Network were engaged and that’s really new in physical science classes. Our district has a low percentage of girls in high school physics classes.
  6. Once you get the equipment, ingredients and class management down, it’s a enjoyable and different way to relate to students – we share stories of family celebrations, our favorite foods. The smell of food and our shared enjoyment of what we’ve made. Breaking bread together is a powerful bond and well, I do love the sweetness of seeing students stirring stuff in tiny frying pans over Bunsen burners.  
  7. Cooking from scratch is a skill that is no longer mainstream. Eating eating less industrially produced food is good for their health and the health of the environment. The social nature of preparing food together, priceless.

The How To is included in the teacher notes at the end of each of the activities I’m sharing. A quick summary of how we’ve managed the challenges of food science labs are:

  1. Equip your group stations with separate, mostly plastic kitchen ware. Don’t use beakers etc. for food if they are used for normal lab work. Plus plastic is cheap and doesn’t break.
  2. Plan ahead for shopping.
  3. Decide how you will deal with clean up. You may need to teach kids how to wash up properly. No longer an automatic skill.
  4. Try the recipe yourself first.
  5. Generally, have the equipment distributed to the tables, and the food items distributed from the front where they are easier to control and to re-fill between classes.
  6. A good idea to demo the instructions, like Rachel Ray without the support staff. Good idea also to have something for them to write down and think about as they wait for food to cook or there will be more melted pens and paper stuffed into the Bunsen holes. The sheets provided are designed with that in mind.
  7. And ever so nice to have a great student teacher do the afternoon classes after a busy, busy morning! Failing that, invite in a parent or other adult to help with safety patrol and materials management if you can. And if not, do it anyway and use it as a dinner party story for your friends 🙂
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Managing the messiest lab in the world – making ice cream with 8th graders. Socrates Cafe “How do you feel about the future?”

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