I teach science. I teach science in a high school that has neither a lab tech, nor laboratory space that would be considered 21st century. What I do have is a sink, a bunch of teenagers and, what I realize every year about this time, really bad classroom norms for cleaning up after laboratory work. Invariably, long after all of my colleagues have finished boxing their belongings and have left the building for the summer, I face the task of scrubbing a plethora of glassware left in my classroom sink as my own children, done with school, wonder when we can leave and start our summer.
So I stood at the sink today scrubbing, scratching and cleaning … and remembering all of the good work my students did this year. There was:
The buret– jammed with a wet plug of cotton just far enough down that it was out of easy reach. One of my students had used this tool for her Gateway project on natural water filtration. She had asked the essential question, “In what ways can nature filter out pollutants?” She tested various substances to see how effective they would be in filtering heavy metals, organics, and bacteria. Not very effective she found out. Nature has a hard time dealing with pollution. The cotton plug was equally difficult to remove.
The separatory funnel – was sticky and hard to wash out. We had modified a chemistry unit this year to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels. The kids took their first foray into chemical lab work this year, making biodiesel from household corn oil. They were excited to make connections between our school work and some real issues the world is facing. The soap by-product left over from making the biodiesel finally helped me clean the funnel.
The black, brown, crusted, grimy, thing – left in a round bottom flask by a student who had always wondered why he and poison ivy were mortal enemies. His project focused on understanding plant essential oils; what they are, why plants make them, how to isolate them, and why poison ivy oil’s biological effects lead to his semi-regular hospital visits. After steam distilling an essential oil from cloves (his teacher advised against using poison ivy) my student was left with the classic black crud, that even more experienced organic chemistry students have struggled to clean for ages.
There were other tools left behind from our work this year. Not every project was successful (the genetically modified blue bacteria, which never turned blue). But the goal was to offer my students a 21st century science curriculum, despite a lab space that is not 21st century equipped. A curriculum that allows students to ask interesting questions, and then have the opportunity to leave their seats, use the materials available to them, and begin to answer some of those questions on their own. My students’ dirty remnants are a good reminder that we had done some good work together this year.
But I do need to get better at my classroom norms. My children remind me every year as they wait for the summer to start.