Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

How We Learn: Student-Led Labs

July 27, 2016

How we learn Nick Williams

WHERE: San Marin High School, Novato, California

WHO: Nick Williams (CA '15) and his physics and engineering students

WHAT THEY'RE DOING: Eliminating all one-day "follow the instructions" labs in favor of experiments the students design themselves

WHY: "I've found that a decent lab experiment takes at least five to 10 hours of class time," says Williams. With student-directed experiments, he explains, kids first research the problem; design procedures; give feedback; edit and reflect upon the procedures they wrote to make them scientifically valid — and only then run the experiment. And they're not done: After running the experiment for the first time, students then identify sources of error and adjust their processes; rerun the experiment; analyze the data; and publish their findings.

"In order to find the time to do that in the depth that it deserves, I'm cutting all of the labs in which students didn't have to think about how to design the procedure, why things were working or not working, or whether their data was valid," Williams says. "I found that the students weren't really understanding the concepts covered by those one-and-done activities, and the labs weren't developing their thinking skills — they were just following the instructions. This new approach will mean incorporating more math via complex data analysis, as well as more rigorous reading from non-textbook sources and writing to fully explain their reasoning and findings. I switched halfway through last year and it was great, so I'm going all in this year."


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