Hands-on Learning for High School Science


We would never consider teaching science to our elementary school-aged kids using dry, lifeless textbooks. Instead, we allow them to experiment and investigate the world around them.

So why does our approach change once our kids reach high school? Why do we assume that our high school students no longer need to explore and discover science firsthand?

Hands-on Learning for High School Science

Here’s a shocker: our high school students still need access to hands-on ways to explore the science they are learning. In fact, I’d wager that providing methods of hands-on exploration is even more important for our kids in high school than it is for our younger children.

The Way Our High Schoolers Learn Science Matters

Why?

When our children are young, they are little sponges—soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of the world around them. That natural curiosity we are all born with may have dulled by the time our children get to high school.  

What’s more, we are expecting our high schoolers to learn abstract concepts like atomic structure, chemical bonds, cell replication, and forces. These aren’t ideas that can be easily observed, which makes them even harder for our students to understand.

What’s the solution?  

We need to provide opportunities for our high school students to explore science in hands-on ways. This can be done through making models, utilizing manipulatives, and hands-on experimentation. Let me provide some examples of ways to incorporate hands-on learning for high school science.

{Please note: this post contains affiliate links.}

Making Models Aids in Understanding Science

Think back to your high school biology class. Do you remember the organelles of a eukaryotic cell? Can you recall the steps of mitosis?

Unless you’ve recently covered these topics with your own students, chances are you don’t. 

Why is that? 

It’s probably because you were tasked with memorizing “useless” facts in order to pass a test rather than taking the time to really understand what you were learning.

This is why I love assigning models to my high school students (and believe it or not, they love it too!). In my biology class students are assigned two models over the course of the year: a cell model and a model of mitosis.

After they learn about the organization of eukaryotic cells as well as the names and functions of cellular organelles, my students are tasked with making a labeled model of a eukaryotic cell. They have free rein to utilize any material they’d like to make their model. 

Each year, I am blown away by my students’ creativity. Every year I have students who choose to make their cell model using food (a pizza cell, a cookie cell, and a cake cell are popular) as well as those that stick to traditional crafting materials like clay or styrofoam. But I’ve also had submissions of a cell model made from an old vinyl record, of LEGO™ blocks, and even a cell built in Minecraft™! 

Pictures of student cell model created in Minecraft, a student cell model created from clay, and a student model of mitosis
Models my biology students have made: A cell made in Minecraft (top right), a cell made with clay (bottom right), and a model of mitosis made with yarn and pipe cleaners (left).

Later in the semester, they learn about mitosis. Rather than requiring them to memorize the steps of cell division, I again ask them to model it for me. Here too, my students amaze me with their creativity.

Here are the main reasons I find that making models is so effective for helping students learn abstract concepts:

  • To create a model, one has to really slow down and pay attention to the details of the thing they are trying to create. Take the cell model for instance. The student has to decide what objects best depict the different organelles. They need to think about how the organelles fit together within the cell. During all of this, they are learning and making deep connections with their understanding of the cell. And this happens anytime a student creates a model.
  • Students actually enjoy having the opportunity to express their uniqueness and creativity by making models. In my experience, students take great pride in their models and often want to share their work with family and friends. You better believe that experience will help make learning stick!

Manipulatives Bring Clarity to Abstract Science Concepts

Another way to help your high school student learn and apply science is with the use of manipulatives.  

I use manipulatives often with my high school chemistry students. In chemistry, students are learning how atoms and molecules combine–something that happens on a scale much too small for them to ever see. Manipulatives can help them take abstract, complex concepts and turn them into something tangible and concrete.   

Chemistry students can have a hard time understanding why balancing chemical equations is important.  If learning to balance equations only on paper, they might lose sight of their ultimate goal: making sure that the number of each type of element at the start of the reaction is the same as the number of that element at the end of the reaction. 

The solution? 

Use manipulatives to help them visualize the chemical equation. Use different colors of LEGO blocks or candy to represent each element. When your student can visualize the elements in a tangible way, they will be able to understand if an equation is balanced, and if it isn’t, how to fix it.

Another topic where manipulatives come in handy during chemistry class is during the study of electron configurations. This can be one of the most confusing concepts for students to grasp from a textbook. 

Recognizing the disconnect my students were having, I created a simple handout of the order in which electrons are filled with an atom. I encourage my students to place their copy of the handout in a page protector and use it as they complete their electron configurations. Some students choose to use small candies to represent electrons as they fill their electron configurations, while others choose to use a dry-erase marker to do it. No matter what method they choose, this simple manipulative has saved hours of frustration and really helped my students to understand this confusing topic.

There are also many wonderful manipulatives you can purchase that help students learn abstract concepts in high school science. Origami Organelles offers models appropriate for a wide range of classes including biology, chemistry, anatomy & physiology, environmental science, physics, and more!  Getting Nerdy Science is another favorite of mine for high school science. I’ve used their 3-D paper dissection models for years in my biology and anatomy & physiology classes to help my students understand the structure of the tissues, organs, and organisms they’re studying in much greater detail than they’d ever be able to achieve through a textbook.

Provide Opportunities for High Schoolers to Experiment

I recognize that providing opportunities for high schoolers to perform experiments can take work and planning. Sometimes it seems easier just to let your kids skip the experiments so that you can check the box that science is done for the day. But in my 20+ years of teaching high school science, I can honestly say that it is through experimentation that students make the best connections with the material.

Most high school science curriculum designed for homeschoolers provides instructions for science experiments students can do from home. Believe it or not, a great number of excellent high school science labs can be done with just a few inexpensive pieces of equipment (like a mass scale, a graduated cylinder, and a beaker) and items you can find at the grocery store. 

Flame tests, dissections, acid-base titrations, microscopy, Petri dish experiments, and more can be done on your kitchen counter and will help make important connections to the material they are learning in their textbooks.

If making hands-on experiments happen still seems out of reach, consider joining with other families to form a high school science co-op. Not only will meeting as a group help keep you accountable, but science experiments are also more fun with a group! It can also be a great way to help split the cost of science supplies.

Video lab courses are another great option for high school science. Courses like the Chemistry Video Lab Course and Biology Video Lab Course provide a year’s worth of high school science labs with video demonstrations of each experiment, printable recording sheets, and answer keys. Students can perform the experiments themselves from home while watching the video demonstration, or they can choose to watch the video lab and use the instructor’s results to complete the questions and calculations on the accompanying lab report.

Look for Ways to Make Science Relevant to Your High Schooler

Finally, encourage your high schooler to recognize how the things they are learning in their science class relate to real life.

Does your high schooler like to bake? Have them discover the difference between baking soda and baking powder (it has to do with acids and bases).

Does your high schooler like cars? Have them investigate why tire pressure decreases when temperatures drop each winter (it has to do with the gas laws).

Is your high schooler into sports? Have them explore the reason why their muscles ache after an intense workout (it has to do with cellular respiration).

If your student understands that the facts they are learning are useful and relevant to them, they are much more likely to engage in learning.

I encourage you to expose your high school students to plenty of opportunities to explore science in a variety of hands-on ways. It will lead to better understanding and retention, and they’ll have fun in the process!

Kristin Moon

About the author

Dr. Kristin Moon is a scientist who left the lab behind to homeschool her two sons. Now that both boys have graduated from her homeschool and are in college, she is devoting her time to helping others provide a quality science education to their children from home. She teaches high school biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy & physiology online to homeschoolers from around the world. She also has self-paced science courses available on her website.

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