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Polishing Our Priorities

As I’m cleaning up after the holidays and finding places for all of my new gadgets, I remember back to one of my favorite Christmas presents as a kid: a rock polisher. I was known for picking up rocks from every spot we vacationed, some small enough to fit in my pockets and others the size of a football that I used (and still use) as a doorstop.
Sometimes I would spend my own money on the beautiful polished rocks you could buy in the store, but it was so baffling to me that the rocks I found could one day be as pretty as the ones for sale. I had a set of small plastic drawers that were meant to sort screws and nails that I used to sort my rocks into categories. I knew the names of many of them, but there were quite a few that I just enjoyed holding and looking at with a hand lens.
The minute I had my own rock polisher, I was ready to put in the first batch of stones to see what would happen. My dad slowed me down in his need to read the directions and wait for a time we could spread everything out on newspaper on the floor. I realized the process would take weeks, with many steps involved. We started with the roughest grit of polishing compound, making a slurry in the drum with all of the unpolished rocks.
After a few weeks, several changes of the polishing compound, and moving the rock polisher into a closet to dampen the noise, I eventually had beautifully polished rocks that could become jewelry or just join the other lovely rocks in my collection. Yes, I had seen polished rocks in a store, but it was nothing like watching the process myself.
As we gear up for the new semester, there are probably several resolutions we have all made, but I challenge you to make a resolution to fit in more hands-on labs for your students this year. I know that you know students should do more labs, but let’s look at a few of the compelling reasons why there is truly no substitute for getting equipment into the hands of our students.
Seeing Really Is Believing
I had seen and purchased polished rocks, I had seen pictures and videos of a rock polisher, and I had seen rocks in a streambed that had been polished smooth over time by nature. But until I watched my own jagged rocks become smooth, I didn’t truly connect the concept that a rock polisher is really just mimicking what happens in nature every day. Weathering and erosion now had a whole new meaning for me.
Labs Are Valuable
There’s no getting around it: Just like polishing rocks, labs take time and can sometimes be messy. But there is no better investment than taking that time to allow students to follow directions, solve problems, summarize their findings in a data table, and use their own words to describe what they have learned. They also should be learning how to take care of equipment and cleaning up their lab tables. If students can do all that, they truly are ready for the world beyond their science class.
Labs Are Memorable
Yes, I could do three demonstrations in the time it takes for students to do one lab. But while students might enjoy watching the first, they will forever remember the second. It’s the difference between a student saying, “Hurry and give me the test before I forget what I studied,” and a student who can vividly recall learning from years before. It really is all about quality over quantity. That being said, choose labs carefully so that they align with grade-level standards and illustrate key concepts.
Put labs on the calendar, set aside time to find equipment, and find an accountability partner to make sure labs stay a priority. It’s easy to want to fast forward through the spring semester using demonstrations, pictures, or videos to illustrate a point. But just like my rock polisher revealed something beautiful underneath the jagged outer layer, labs can reveal a science concept to students that can take their breath away—and that are so much more useful than a doorstop.
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