How to Teach Laboratory Safety to Middle School Science Students

The very first unit I teach to my seventh grade science students is laboratory safety. Teaching lab safety as your first unit immediately sets your students up for yearlong success in science class. Students love experiments and often learn the most from that kind of hands-on activity. Therefore, being able to safely participate in science class at the beginning of the year is vital. Another bonus is that the unit is short and the content is straightforward (i.e. easy), so it is a great way to introduce and practice class procedures like note-taking, working in a group, participating in an activity, handing in homework, taking a quiz, etc.

How do I plan my lab safety unit?

Start with a lab safety contract! Safety contracts are filled with all of the important safety stuff students need to know. Use one to build your unit. When I first started teaching middle school science, I used Flinn Scientific’s safety contract. (Just Google “Flinn Scientific Safety Contract” and what you need will pop up, available for free. I know there is a high school and a middle school version out there and both of them come in English and Spanish.) However, not all of the Flinn Scientific material applied to my students—it mentioned chemicals and equipment we wouldn’t be using. For my own lesson planning purposes, I printed a copy of the safety contract and highlighted the most important information and crossed off what wasn’t going to be relevant to my students that year. That helped me focus on what I wanted my students to come away knowing. Using my highlighted safety contract, I wrote a list of lab safety rules that encompassed the most important safety information. Then I created my lab safety quiz. Once you have your safety rules written and your assessment made, you’re ready to decide how you’re going to teach the material. Note-taking? Activities? Scenarios? Choose what works best for you, your teaching style, and your group of students.

What lab safety rules should I use?

Like I mentioned above, you can construct your own lab safety rules using a lab safety contract. Alternatively, you can use the rules I wrote for my own students. They are listed below. You’re welcome ;)

  1. I will always take the time to read and understand all laboratory procedures before beginning.
  2. I will carefully follow all directions and will ask the teacher if I do not understand something.
  3. I will not touch any laboratory materials before being told to do so.
  4. I will keep my area clean and clear of everything except laboratory materials. 
  5. I will properly wear all required safety items, such as goggles or aprons, for the duration of the laboratory activity.  
  6. I will wear appropriate clothing on lab days. I will wear closed toed shoes. I will tie back long hair if applicable. I will not wear baggy clothing or jewelry. 
  7. I will only work when the teacher is present. 
  8. I will not eat, drink, or chew gum during the laboratory activity. 
  9. I will not run or engage in any horseplay during the laboratory activity. 
  10. I will tell the teacher immediately about any injuries, spills, or broken items. 
  11. I will not take any of the laboratory materials without permission from the teacher. 
  12. I will completely clean my area and appropriately return laboratory materials before leaving the classroom. 

How many days long should my lab safety unit be?

I always make my lab safety unit last no more than one week long. That gives us more than enough time to introduce, practice, and assess the unit. And remember, I also use this time to familiarize students with classroom procedures, which saves us oodles of time later in the year. Five 50 minute class periods (or three 90 minute block periods) is the most I’ve ever needed for this unit. In my opinion, the optimal amount of time to spend on the safety unit is four 45 minute long class periods.

What does a complete lab safety unit look like?

Below you’ll find a breakdown of my own tried and true lab safety unit. I’ve taught this unit using various bell schedules—(45 minute classes, 55 minute classes, and 90 minute classes). The unit description below is for four days of 50 minute class periods.

Day One:

Start class with a science safety warmup (also called a bell ringer) to see what students already know. Discuss student answers. As a class, read through and discuss lab safety contracts and have students sign theirs. Send the contracts home and have parents sign the contracts as homework.* Make it clear that students will not participate in any labs or experiments until their signed contracts have been handed in.

*The lab safety contracts are due by the end of the week. Students are reminded throughout the week to hand them in.

Day Two: 

Begin class with another warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Use a PowerPoint to guide student note-taking about lab safety. I include the following notes sections: Before the Lab, During the Lab, After the Lab, and Other Safety Information. Here is a video of the interactive notebook pages I use with my students. You can get these INB pages and a PowerPoint here.

Day Three:

Begin class with a warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Review the material students learned the day before. Then it's activity time. Students can practice the lab safety rules in small groups with a fun scenario activity. Then you can send students home with this fun safety bookmark that'll function as a study guide. Alternatively, instead of the scenario activity, you can have students color and complete the lab safety bookmarks as a beginning of the year safety activity. (Take a look at the example safety bookmark below.)

Day Four:

Begin class with a warmup about lab safety. Discuss student answers. Review lab safety information. Students complete their lab safety quiz. If there is time at the end of class, then go over the quiz answers together. 

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What do I do before each science experiment in the future?

Before Every.Single.Science.Experiment we review general safety information and safety information that is particularly relevant to that experiment.

Well, that’s my lab safety unit! I hope it helped you plan your own unit or gave you a clear picture of how to use my safety unit in your own class. 

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