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Biology: Lab Rules and Safety

Excerpts from AP Biology Teachers Discussion Group

Question: "Help! I am a new teacher and the students are always trying to sneak food, gum, or drinks in the lab. Am I being too serious by insisting on no food or drinks? And how do other teachers enforce the rule?"

Answer 1: "I allow my students to eat in the class area (I have a class area and a lab area), however, my students understand that they are NOT allowed to eat in the lab area. At the beginning of the school year I gave examples and reasons why one should not eat in the lab area. So when we have to do a lab, I remind the students that no food, drinks, gum, candy, etc. is allowed in the lab area AND, if I catch them eating, drinking, etc., they will be taken out of the lab and given a zero for the lab. In addition, they would be required to write a three-page paper on the hazards of eating in the lab. I usually have no problems with eating in the lab after I go through the speech. I have always found this works even better when there is a student who tries to go against the rules and gets taken out of the lab and is the example for the class. (I do the same with the goggles.) Good luck!"
-- Sandy Wong, Alameda High School, Alameda, California. 12/16/99.

Answer 2: "Of course, you are right to insist on no food in the lab. I suspect you are up against a cultural shift; I have noticed that my students seem to have grown up believing that they can eat and drink anywhere. Even our young teachers seem to have this belief, so the enforcement of 'no eating' rules is spotty. I still refuse to allow students to eat in class or lab. The only way to get this established is by eternal vigilance: adopt one of the policies suggested by the listserv and then enforce it with confidence and with religious zeal. Parents will support you when you emphasize the safety aspects."
-- Leslie Haines, Williams HS, Burlington, North Carolina. 12/17/99

Answer 3: "I also shudder to think what might have happened if some of the bacteria were antibiotic resistant. Being in Tucson, I allow drinks in the class, but only what you bring in. Food is not allowed and nothing is allowed during a lab day. I usually throw stuff away after one warning. I also leave a lot of the stock chemicals visible and turn the warnings on the labels so students can see them. Finally, while I am introducing each lab, I give a 'safety points' talk specific to the lab. Sometimes the food problem for me can be difficult to enforce because a lot of my activities are related to food and the students have to eat or taste stuff (e.g., making ice cream to have the students think about freezing point alterations of solutions)."
-- Steve Uyeda, Catalina Foothills High School, Tucson, Arizona. 12/18/99

Answer 4: "Eating and/or drinking in a laboratory setting are safety issues. Two years ago I posted on my door a note that states: 'Science Lab: For your own safety, no food or drinks.' That simple note has stopped a long-fought battle. Of course, I had to make sure that I adhered to the same rules. It was difficult this fall as I trained to run the Honolulu Marathon and had to drink profusely, but I left the room to do it and I make students leave also. They know to take care of those issues before they come to my class. I had complete support of my administration once they understood my concerns. Two things strengthened my position:
  1. I have reptiles in my classroom that have the potential for carrying salmonella even though they have been consistently cultured clean for any disease.
  2. I am also a licensed medical technologist and know that in a real lab setting, eating and drinking would definitely endanger health and lab results of any kind."
-- Marla Vaughn, Oroville, California. 12/20/99

Answer 5: "Wait until one of your cherubs develops an infection or gets some kind of stomach thing. Then your administrator will care. Academic penalties, ejection, detention, calls home -- whatever it takes. You have the right policy and need to enforce it."
-- Israel Solon, Greenhill School, Dallas, Texas. 12/16/99

Answer 6: "Consider covering yourself also. Write up the rules and have the students sign a copy. Keep it on file just in case."
-- Bruce Faitsch, Guilford High School, Guilford, Connecticut. 12/17/99

Answer 7: "Stick to your guns. If anything ever happened to a student, not only would you feel badly about it, but you would be in danger of losing your job, home, car, etc. In these days of litigation, the best thing you can do is cover yourself! Have the students take home a contract that they and their parents must sign which states they have read and understood the rules of the lab. Our contract has a place for the parents to mention any allergies or other health concerns of the student that may impact their ability to do things in the lab. I have my rules posted in the room at all times, and I take sodas from students caught with them and pour them down the sink. It discourages them from bringing them if they think they will lose 50 cents down the drain. I even tell my students that I will try, to the best of my ability, to abide by the rule (sometimes hard because of chronic bronchitis that requires near constant intake of liquids in the acute phase). My background is in microbiology and I always do a lot of bacteriology with my first-year students in the spring. Also, many of my students choose to do microbiology-based science fair projects because of the equipment we have in my lab. I can't afford to be lax on the no food/no drink policy. Keep it up, you are doing the right thing."
-- Jo Ann Burman, Andress High School, El Paso, Texas. 12/17/99

Question: "I would like some options on methods of assessing lab work. Do you assess as a team? Lab practical? Formal lab reports? Lab notebooks (the kind with grid lines or the AP lab book or the lab book that comes with the kits, or do you have them type out the lab)? Pre-lab write ups? How much does lab work count in your grading scheme?"

Answer 1: "I count labs heavily, about 30 percent, because of their central role in the class and the amount of time they consume. My students do a prelab flowchart and hypothesis and a formal lab report. The lab reports are equal in weight to tests; I really feel it is important that students are able to explain coherently what they have done, along with data analysis. I have had trouble finding the time for lab practicals in my schedule. I used to do lab notebooks, but now I much prefer the typed lab handed in individually, as it is easier for me to handle. I occasionally give lab quizzes or pop tests, giving them an alternate set of data to analyze. These quizzes act as an important check to counteract one persistent problem -- the handing down of labs from year to year. This inevitably becomes a problem because the required labs are done every year, and the previous year's students are more than willing to lend (or sell!) the reports."
-- Leslie Haines, Walter Williams High School, Burlington, North Carolina. 8/2/00

Answer 2: "I don't know how others do it, but in my class, students work in teams of three or four to do the lab and collect data. As this is a 'group effort,' data and graphs can be the same (if one student is especially computer proficient and can run a graphing program, it is all right for that one student to furnish graphs for all the group members). However, each student must turn in a formal lab report, and these must all be different (be careful, they may try to change the font and print a second copy). I require that all labs be word processed, and include purpose, materials, procedure, data, discussion/analysis, error analysis, and conclusion. The purpose, materials, and procedures must be completed (word processed) PRIOR to actually doing the lab. I found this eliminates a lot of the 'what do I do next?' problem. These lab reports count as 40 percent of my grade, with tests and quizzes making up the other 60 percent. Students are required to maintain a lab notebook that includes all their labs. I was told at an AP conference a while ago that some colleges want to see a lab notebook to ensure that the student actually had a college-level lab experience before granting credit/placement for the lab portion of biology courses. If they keep this notebook, they will have hard evidence for their college. As the AP Exam itself includes questions about labs (or the principles demonstrated in the labs), and because I pattern my tests after the AP test, lab assessment in addition to lab reports is included in the test/quiz grade. I do no separate 'lab test.'"
-- Linda Wichers, Seaholm High School, Birmingham, Missouri. 8/2/00

Answer 3: "I do all... in addition to poster presentation of an AP lab. I have small classes and everyone prepares a different lab poster and presents it to the class in a 'seminar day' -- much like seminar sessions in college. This helps them review lab concepts. I also do lab quizzes in lieu of lab reports occasionally. It depends on the lab and when it falls in the grading period on what type of assessment I do, but they all keep a laboratory notebook. Labs count 30 percent, exams 40 percent, and daily quizzes 30 percent."
-- Nancy Hein. Hawley High School, Hawley, Texas. 8/2/00

Answer 4: "A suggestion regarding... students passing on or selling lab reports for AP Biology to the next year's students. It might help if you give students back their graded work during class, but collect it after they have looked at it. Advantages: Students won't have a graded copy to 'sell' to other kids. Students might still have a copy of their rough draft, or a copy on their word processor a year later, but at least students would know that you have copies of all previously turned in work. This might discourage students from lending their old work or buying the work as they are more likely to be caught. Disadvantage: Students wouldn't be able to use their graded lab reports to review for the test. (Unless they used a word processor, made a copy, kept a rough draft.) The disadvantage might outweigh the advantages, but that's for you to decide."
-- Susie Fox, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, Los Angeles, California. 8/2/00

Answer 5: "You might also)have corrected copies of labs available in the classroom for students to study during extra instruction."
-- Heda O'Brien, The Bullis School, Potomac, Maryland. 8/2/00

Answer 6: "... what I do to minimize students lifting labs from years past is to make a big deal in class about how we're changing the procedures from what we have done previously, because of blah blah blah. They end up believing that things are so different that it would not even pay to look at past students' reports. ALSO, I have them write a full report only once each quarter and, each year, I choose a different lab. As far as answers to lab questions on the Internet, I have stopped grading lab manuals per se and instead tend to give quick quizzes based on these questions and on the lab objectives in class. I make it a point to change the questions a bit from year to year and/or to give quizzes on different labs from those that I chose last year. The computer age offers us challenges, but we can certainly keep apace. It reminds me of the evolution of host-parasite relationships, in which as the parasite evolves and more successful forms are selected for, there is a concomitant selection for 'clever' hosts."
-- Barbara R. Beitch, Hamden Hall Country Day School, Hamden, Connecticut. 8/2/00

Answer 7: "I solved the problem for myself by requiring that they use a marble composition book and number the pages of the composition booklet. This is handed into me with all their work, calculations, graphs, etc. I correct them and at the end of the year the entire notebook is handed in, as are their textbooks. Any student who doesn't hand in the complete set is informed of the penalty and a deficiency notice is sent to the student's parents."
-- Mary Berger, Roselle Catholic High School, Roselle, New Jersey. 8/3/00

Answer 8: "1. I ran lab groups of two for the most part, but sometimes three or four, depending on the lab. 2. I used sewn-in bound lab notebooks with graph grid paper for students to record all information such as protocol outline, hypotheses, raw data, etc. Formal lab reports, which were not all labs, were typed/word processed. 3. There are a couple of companies that produce lab notebooks. National is a name that comes to mind, but there are others. We got ours through a local jobber who sold school-type supplies. (Check with a local university biology department in your area to see where they get theirs)."
-- Fred Brown, William Hall High School, Louisville, Kentucky. 8/25/00

Answer 9: "As I normally don't have more than 10 students in my AP class, sometimes fewer than that, I can often have the students work independently or in groups of only two or three. I ask that they buy a spiral-bound, 4 X 4 or 5 X 5, quadrille graph paper notebook. Five-star makes a very good one, which is 4 X 4 on one side and 5 X 5 on the other."
-- Jo Ann Burman, Andress High School, El Paso, Texas. 8/25/00

Webmaster's Note: Check out "See also" and go to Flynn: Your Safer Source for Science Supplies, which is an extremely comprehensive guide to all aspects of safety in the classroom, from goggles to overcrowding! Excellent resource!

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