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Maren Johnson | Life in the Classroom, Science | October 24, 2012

Unfortunately, it's not invisible: The Equipment


3_Industrial_Hazardsby Maren Johnson

This month on Stories from School, we are trying to expose some of the "invisible" work that teachers do--the things in teaching that may go unseen by others.  Unfortunately, what I have to write about is not at all invisible--rather, it is all too often in our way!  Science teachers, Career and Tech Ed teachers, and other teachers of project and lab based classes spend much of our time functioning as equipment managers--not the most glamorous duty, but a duty, indeed, it is.  You can see a few of us in the photo off to the left, and yes, we are hamming it up for a Homecoming spirit day dressed as Industrial Hazards, but you get the idea--our equipment is large and can be hard to handle.

What are some of the “invisibles” that come with all this equipment?

Mark wrote about the ordering and I completely concur with that post:  we are fortunate when we have a budget with which to order items, but the ordering itself is incredibly time consuming!  What exact part do we need? How much of that reagent are we going to use in the next year?  One of my coworkers is the king of materials.  He is an overachiever in the world of ordering and gets some amazing equipment from Ebay and surplus suppliers.  Yes, he gets much more out of the limited budget money, but at what cost in terms of teacher time?  I use quite a bit of biotechnology equipment which I borrow from some generous institutions.  Free, yes.  But reserving it and hauling it?  That takes time.

Besides ordering, what other responsibilities come with equipment and supply management?  Storage and disposal: all those chemicals have to go somewhere, and you had better not put the potassium permanganate next to the ethylene glycol on that shelf.  Also, we do not pour our used chemicals down the drain—nope, we label and store them until disposal—they may be invisible to the outside world, but these chemicals are definitely not invisible in our prep room!  Mixing solutions: the scut work of teaching chemistry labs.  I’ve gotten more efficient with this over time.  Repair and maintenance: A screw just fell out of one of the microscopes.  Trust me, I'm no microscope technician, but hey, a few minor repairs?  I've learned to do it.

Safety:  A ladder safety workshop has gotten a few knocks on this blog, but, honestly, if we are going to do science labs, the danger is real, and we need to take our safety seriously.  Yes, that means safety trainings, and some years we do learn about the latest in OSHA regulations, but other years it doesn’t get much better as an after school teacher activity than to have the friendly neighborhood firefighters come over, light a fire behind the school, and then get to put it out!

As a pre-service teacher, equipment management was one area I literally never thought about.  It takes up quite a bit of my teaching time, and looking at the larger picture, I am not sure that it should.  Would my time be better spent on classroom curriculum and assessment, on student feedback, or on designing new labs instead of on some of this minutiae of equipment management?  Yes.  Can equipment management be separated from science teaching?  Probably not.  Some schools do have lab managers, or science kit-type assistance, or even department heads, but, realistically, at a smaller school, we are self-reliant for this.  Does all this 'equipment management' impact student learning?  Well, lab days are often the best days, and I think my students would probably agree.


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I love this picture! You're right - materials handling and setting up for labs is such a time-intensive and invisible aspect of teaching science.

I can't imagine what it's like to be a science teacher who teaches more than one grade level or content area!

Janette MacKay

When I lived in Africa, the bus drivers would go get any supplies we needed, and our full time teaching assistants would take care of storage, ordering, cleaning up, etc. Because of this broader distribution of responsibilities, I had more time for the things you mentioned like instructional planning, assessment, and feedback. Maybe one of these days our education system will catch up.

This probably merits a separate post, but along the lines of managing equipment, another invisible is managing technology. I have a laptop cart with seven computers in my room - a wonderful resource - as long as they're working. But I can't tell you many times I've planned a web-based lesson, only to find that three of my computers can't "find" the wireless network. Which means I get to spend fifteen frantic minutes, troubleshooting the damn things.

Yeah, and if maintaining equipment is a challenge (I'm not good at it and don't seem to improve) it becomes even more of a chore. I'm grateful for all the equipment I have but it is a lot of work storing it all year until you need it again making sure, like you said, that you still have enough of everything you need to use it again. It takes careful planning or fretful fixing to make it work. It would be so cool to have someone replenish our Science kits but alas, it's all on us.

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