If you think back to your days in school, what are the parts you remember about your time in the classroom? Odds are that your sharpest memories aren’t of sitting in your desk listening to a lecture, but of something you actually did — performing on stage, making a slam dunk in the gym or dissecting that frog.
It turns out that when your body is actively involved in your learning, you make stronger neurological connections and a more lasting impression in your mind. You’ll understand concepts more deeply and remember them longer. Scientists theorize that even an activity so small as writing notes by hand is powerful enough to create an additional layer of learning in the sensorimotor part of the brain — and the more ways you have to store information, the better.
It’s no surprise, then, that hands-on activities and experiments lead to better outcomes for students in all subjects, but science programs are especially well suited for hands-on learning. Here’s why.
The Scientific Method Is a Process, Not a Product
Regardless of how you may feel about education reform and the Common Core standards, the overall movement today is away from memorizing facts and toward an understanding of the concepts and mechanism behind them. This is especially important in the sciences, where one of the overarching objectives is for students to understand the scientific method. This requires not just memorizing the steps about hypothesis and experimentation, but also putting them into action with a whole range of hands-on experiments.
When students have the opportunity to develop their own theories and test them out in the classroom, they gain a deeper understanding of the specific subject at hand as well as the ways in which scientists study the world to make new discoveries.
Hands-On Learning Levels the Playing Field
In the past, a memorization-centric curriculum heavily favored students with fully developed attention spans and executive functioning skills — often at the expense of those with learning disabilities. Hands-on learning, on the other hand, increases student motivation across the board. Additionally, when it’s offered in the classroom instead of as a homework assignment, it provides enriching experiences for low-income students who may otherwise not get to use tech equipment like microscopes, autoclaves and laptop computers.
How to Increase Hands-On Learning Opportunities in Science Classrooms
Most science teachers want nothing more than to engage their students with hands-on experiments and experiential learning, but getting started can present challenges, especially in large classes with limited budgets. These tips may help you get going:
- Join your professional organization for literature and conferences that will keep you apprised of the latest teaching methods and clever ideas for engaging activities.
- Check out the teacher’s version of your school’s textbook, which often offers notes on demonstrations and activity suggestions in its margins.
- Remember that the simplest experiments can often be the most powerful — plant a seed, taste sugar and salt, swab your cheek. Effective doesn’t have to mean expensive!
- There are hands-on kits for nearly every scientific field of study. A kit can be a great way to get your students’ hands on professional-quality tools and equipment without a major investment in a new school lab.
- Don’t forget to get parents involved! If you’re concerned about a lack of funding for materials that will make hands-on lessons take off in your classroom, ask your PTA to fundraise for equipment or donate common items to your classroom. They’re always looking for ways to help!
With some creativity and a renewed dedication to the importance of experimentation and hands-on learning, science classrooms can become a model for engaging education that reaches all students to help them succeed.