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Workshop on 5 December 2017 – How to embed experiments in science lessons

There are many suggestions in the scientific literature about how to integrate experimenting into scientific teaching. In Germany an important point in teacher education is not only to study these in theory, but also to learn to practically use and embed scientific approaches in lessons.

For this, future teachers at our University of Education do not only study didactic and methodological concepts theoretically but also do three internships during their studies. While completing the internships, the students are supported by a trained mentor at the school as well as by staff of the university.

This is considered necessary for at least two reasons: First, the principle of learning by doing, and second, because in one class there are many pupils with different levels of prior knowledge and experiences with scientific phenomena.

Already during our first stay at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School in spring 2017, we, Rebecca and Veronika, sat in on many biology, chemistry, and physics classes that our Lao tandem-teachers were teaching at the time, in order to get an idea of what was going on and how exactly we might be able to assist.

As the lessons were obviously held in Lao, we very often had to guess what the content and topics of the lessons were. However, the actual teaching was plain to see, and soon we guessed that an education in general or subject-related didactics and teaching methodology does not seem to be part of a university or college education for science teachers in Laos. The simplest didactic principles or techniques seem to be new for them – but they are only the “simplest” for us.  It starts with using coloured chalks for writing on the blackboard to visualize different categories, or using illustrations that are big enough for every pupil to see.

This is why we decided to give our four tandem-teachers Mr Sackbong, Mr Phit, Ms Khamsee, and Ms Chanmany an understanding of how to embed experiments in a science lesson in such a way that it might foster pupils’ knowledge and understanding. For this we broke down the steps of a typical scientific discovery process into four basic steps, to make it easier for the Lao teachers to remember:

1. Plan the experiment
2. Do the experiment
3. Explain
4. Check your pupils’ understanding

When we were preparing our own workshop, we followed exactly these four steps. We followed the same four steps again while we were conducting the workshop a few weeks later. Here is what we did:

1. Plan it

In the first workshop, we introduced the teachers to the Didactics Room and encouraged them to use the new equipment there to prepare material (e.g. flashcards) for their lessons. We also encouraged them to integrate experiments into their lessons so that the students would be able to experience the scientific phenomena practically.

Some of the teachers subsequently started to go to the new science lab with their pupils and do more and more experiments. However, sometimes the experiments were shown or conducted one right after the other instead of embedding them sequentially and meaningfully in the lesson or the current topic. We assumed this might be due to the lack of didactic and methodological skills.

In our first workshop, we had given them the “teaching tools” – and now it was necessary to give them the “instruction manual”. Therefore, we decided to offer a workshop on the topic “How to embed experiments in science lessons”.

2. Do it

After a theoretical instruction about the four steps (plan – do – explain – check pupils’ understanding) for using an experiment in a science lesson, we demonstrated an example lesson which included the experiment “Can crusher”.

Through model-teaching, we showed the science teachers what a lesson can look like when one follows the four steps to embed an experiment in the context of a particular lesson.

3. Explain

The challenge for us in working with our science teachers is their still basic level of English, which is why, alongside everything else, we teach them English 3-5 times a week. Reversely, it was a very demanding challenge for them to a) follow our model lesson, and to understand b) the concept, and c) the content that we had explained in English. Just imagine for a moment having to do this yourself with a lesson held in Lao. 

This is why the second step of our workshop sparked a heated discussion. They tried to translate our theoretical input to one another, and to understand what exactly was happening in the experiment. Even though it did not become clear to us (guess why) whether they understood everything correctly, we could see that we had given them a big boost – not to be afraid anymore of
a) trying out new things,
b) interpreting the scientific concept behind phenomena witnessed in an experiment, and
c) discussing open questions with colleagues if one is stuck oneself.

 4. Check the understanding

To practise and consolidate the four steps – plan, do, explain, check – the teachers were now asked to worked in pairs to prepare one lesson together, with one integrated experiment. They were to use the same pattern in a new context, all on their own. Ms Khamsee and Ms Chanmany decided to work on an experiment on surface tension while Mr Sackbong and Mr Pith prepared a lesson around the experiment “How to build a lemon battery”. As the concept of surface tension did not seem to be known to either Ms Khamsee or Ms Chanmany, we explained it to them to start with – and thereby killed two birds with one stone.

After the workshop our tandem-teachers seemed quite exhausted – no wonder – as from observing their faces while working we could see that their brains were working at maximum speed for over two hours.

Nevertheless, we hope that they will adapt our suggestions for their lessons and integrate the “simple” four steps for their lesson structure when they use experiments as from now on – but we are also quite confident about this. We have got to know the science teachers as very motivated, and open to new ideas.

Text by R. Dengler & V. Golla

Photos & videos by L. Malchow

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