Advice to keep all students safe in practical lessons

Most teachers have encountered students who seem to have lost all sense of coordination after a growth spurt and, for a few exasperating weeks, seem to be able to break glassware just by thinking about picking it up. Spillage and breakage are inevitable when students handle equipment, and we need to ensure no one is harmed because of the occasional mishap.

Exactly the same principle applies to students whose difficulties are more permanent. However, I would strongly advocate finding less hazardous ways of carrying out the activities, rather than being tempted to limit the participation of some students. In this article, I’m not concerned about critiquing hands-on work in science, but on how, not whether, to provide every student with experience in practical science.

An image showing a student using pipettes

Source: © Getty Images

All breakages must be paid for – no need to worry about that if you use less breakable alternatives to glassware

In England, the DfE’s special educational needs data from January 2018 provides information about why some students may have poor manipulative skills. Students with cerebral palsy could have difficulties as this condition affects movement and coordination because of the paralysis of some muscles. Dyspraxia, formerly known as ‘clumsy child syndrome’, is another possible cause due to delayed coordination development. Less obvious candidates are students who can’t see the apparatus clearly due to visual impairment, and those who lack a sense of three-dimensional perspective because of visual loss in one eye. Students with mobility impairments may also experience difficulties manipulating equipment. Also, they may not be able to move away as quickly as other students if an accident occurs.

Five ways to help

Here are five approaches to keep these learners safe in laboratory sessions. All these measures will benefit other students.

Reduce the risk of the experiment

Reduce the amount of reagent, the concentration of reagent, or both. This may be the nudge you need to introduce more microscale chemistry, with its accompanying cost reductions.

Enhance the level of protection

People with limited mobility are at risk of spills pooling in their laps, so plastic aprons will offer an additional level of protection against this. Eye protection should be adjusted – safety goggles to protect against splashes should be the minimum requirement – and face shields are recommended for everything except the least hazardous reagents. Carrying out experiments in a shallow tray will also help to contain any spills.

Substitute apparatus

Students with tremors are at risk of spilling when they pour so, in these cases, use a large syringe to draw up liquids before emptying it into the receptacle. Plastic measuring cylinders and beakers are widely available. They’re also inexpensive and won’t break when dropped. Glassware items like test tubes and burettes can be purchased in polycarbonate. Plastic dropper pipettes are now far more common than their glass counterparts. Cocktail sticks are much less fragile than capillary tubes when you’re doing chromatography and work just as well.

Secure apparatus

Make apparatus easier to grasp by putting items on a non-slip surface such as a silicon sheet. Rubber bands wrapped several times around an item can improve grip and enable apparatus like thermometers to be tethered to a retort stand.

Buddy up and be inclusive

It’s important that all parties benefit from this approach and that one student isn’t simply being the amanuensis for another. Since students with movement difficulties may feel self-conscious, choosing a buddy or two that they feel comfortable with may help them to overcome this. It’s highly likely that everyone will actively contribute if you ensure that group tasks draw on every student’s strengths. You could include some discussion questions that tie in well with a practical activity, for example. Also, it can help to assign roles to every student in a group, but be wary of reinforcing stereotypes by always assigning hands-off tasks to the pupils with manipulative or movement difficulties.

Whatever strategies or combination of strategies you choose to implement, it’s important that each student is comfortable with them. This is where whole-class modifications such as microscale procedures are useful because no one student can be singled out as being different. It’s important to take time out to engage with each student when you first meet them, and to then discuss modifications as they are introduced – this paves the way for a collaborative working relationship between teacher and student.

Listen carefully to what students have to say: what are they anxious or self-conscious about? If you do, they will be more likely to listen to your point of view. Above all, take their aspirations seriously and carefully look at the validity of any rules you choose to apply in each new context. For every rule, there will be an exception, and you need to show students that you will be responsive to individual needs, rather than simply formulaic.

Supporting diverse learners