When I first learned about executive functioning (EF), I was skeptical as at first glance, it sounded like another ephemeral educational buzzword that lives and dies in PD sessions. Thankfully, I was quickly turned and realize that EF is a crucial skill that all students need practice with and that hands on science can serve as a wonderful subject in which to learn and practice EF.
Understood.org has this to say:
Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It’s in charge of making sure things get done from the planning stages of the job to the final deadline. When kids have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge.
The way it was introduced to me was as such:
“What are you going to have for dinner?” – Immediately, your brain starts thinking ahead about what you have at your house, what you need to buy, and the times you need to procure, cook, and eat. So, a simple question caused a rush of neurological infrastructure to start thinking ahead to what you would need to solve a problem. We largely do this because as adults, we-hopefully-think and plan ahead but in kids with EF difficulties, this area of the brain hasn’t developed those skill sets. I always wondered why students forget to bring something to write with to class and are surprised they needed to bring one in the first place but as it turns out, a lack of EF skills could be the culprit. So, how can science help this? Easy! Being a scientist requires incredible amounts of thinking ahead, planning, and organization in order to plan, conduct, and analyze experiments.
Here is a link to a simple doc I made for a Vitamin C chemistry clock reaction for 4th and 5th graders with a few EF tags in it. Now this is by no means a complete EF work-up and I’ll expand on some ideas in this entry in subsequent entries but this doc does highlight one of my favorite EF lab tactics for lab procedures and that is thinking about the right tool for the job. Traditionally, teachers tend to put out beakers and equipment for this lab or give each group a set of tools. While this does save time, it does take away some of the inquiry of finding the right tools.
In the beginning of the year, in addition to normal lab safety, we workshopped the following ideas:
In the pictures you can see examples of the students worked stations which they designed into quadrants and boxes to organize their materials and keep them separate.
Step 1: Make a vitamin C solution by crushing a 1000 mg vitamin C tablet and dissolving it in 60 mL of distilled water. Label as “vitamin C stock solution”.
I asked the students how they are going to crush the tablets. They suggested smashing it hammers, bricks, the bottoms of beakers and I asked them how they were ensure they recovered all of the powder. Then, one of them suggested a mortar and pestle and demo-ed why that will be useful for recovery. So we had that tool established and that wrote that in the materials box next to the step.
Next, we turned our attention to the 60 mL distilled water. Someone suggested a beaker but noticed that there was no 60 mL line and that getting exactly that amount was going to be logistically impossible. Another student said that graduated cylinders have that marking and it was determined that we should use those to measure out liquids to be precise. I also told them at the markers on beakers are only 95% accurate which convinced them further.
Then, we decided to look at various size graduated cylinders we have: 10 mL, 25 mL, 50 mL, 100 mL, 250 mL, and 500 mL. As a student suggested a size, myself or a student modeled it and we made some determinations about the various sizes:
250 mL and 500 mL: too big as it was hard to see where the 60 mL line
10 mL and 25 mL: too small as we would have to fill it multiple times. Since there is only one distilled water sink, it would take a long time for all the groups to cycle through.
50 mL: same problem but the students said they could use a 50 mL and a 10 mL GC and since we are only measuring water, we wouldn’t need to do any cleaning to get the proper amount so that was an option.
100 mL: Also, an option but the students said there could be a line as students fill and empty the GC to get the proper amount of water. Then, a student suggested filling the 100 mL GC to slightly above 60 and using a dropper back at the bench to get the specific amount. This was the option that a majority of the students went with but some opted for the 50 mL and 10 mL combination but also used a transfer pipette.
This seems like a lot of work for 1 step but after a couple experiments, it becomes part of the routine. Most importantly, it allows students to think ahead and place themselves in the experiment going through the steps in their own minds before rushing into the lab. EF skills are important in ensuring that students “mind map” a task and think ahead to the logistics of a project.
As we were creating a dialogue around equipment, I told them that at the beginning of my science tenure, I was frequently reprimanded by my bosses for what I realize now was poor EF skills. Then, one of my students raised their hand and asked why I just didn’t just create these dialogue boxes next to steps and think about data collection before the experiment like we are doing. That was a good question and I didn’t have a real answer aside from that doing so would have alleviated some headaches.
A lab environment is overwhelming for the student with EF difficulties and next time, I will talk about how to set up a work station on a benchpad that keeps equipment, chemicals, and notes separate and organize and how to utilize downtime in between steps to set up subsequent experiments