If you have an older student who is doing science, you probably are dealing with science labs and the, shall we say, “mess”? Yeah, there’s some mess involved, but you might be thinking, “What’s the point of making that mess, of doing those labs? Is it even necessary?” Today we’re going to discuss all things related to science labs with Karen Smith.

Sonya: Karen, I’m glad you’re here to discuss this topic. We get questions about it a lot. I’ve questioned it as my kids were going through middle school and high school. So here’s the topic: science labs. Whenever I ask people, “Do I have to do these? Why do I have to do these?” usually the only answer I get is, “Well, for graduation; for credits. You have to include them for credits.” Can we get past that? Can you give me other reasons, especially if my child’s not going to college, or is not going to pursue a science career, why do science labs? 

Karen: Well, first off, they’re fun. (laughs) I know they’re not fun for a lot of people, because they’re not comfortable with science; but they are fun, and they’re well worth the time, the mess, and the expense for your children to do them. So, let’s talk about some of the reasons besides college transcripts and that type of stuff. 

Sonya: Okay, yes, please do. What are some other reasons that science labs should be done? 

Karen: Doing science labs gives your children a hands-on way to relate to what they are reading in their science books. That’s a very important thing. We can read about how some experiment was performed, but doing it yourself is eye-opening. It gives you that experience

Sonya: That’s like how we can read about a naturalist’s time observing beavers, but it’s not the same as us going to observe them for ourselves and forming our own relation. It’s kind of a second-hand relation, if you will, instead of first-hand. 

Karen: Yes, instead of just reading it. 

Sonya: So instead of just reading about the experiment, doing it helps your child build that first-hand relation. That makes total sense. 

Karen: It’s not just reading about experiments, but also, with some of the material in a science book, being able to do that in a hands-on way helps cement those ideas in your child’s mind. 

Sonya: Yes, that makes sense. Because relations are all about a shared experience that has involved your emotions and your imagination, so that when you think back on it, you can picture the scene. It makes sense then, making the “mess” (I’m just going to call it that because that’s what we think of it), personally, involves some kind of emotional experience, and you can think back on what you saw happen for yourself. 

Karen: Yes, it would be similar to watching somebody paint a picture and getting instruction on how to do it, but never doing it yourself. 

Sonya: Oh yeah, like the Creating a Masterpiece videos that we recommend so often. Sitting and watching Sharon do a pastel painting is not the same as doing it yourself. That’s a very good comparison. 

Karen: Yes. It’s very similar to that. Another reason is that doing the experiments teaches that science is fallible. Science is not settled, ever, and so, when your children perform the experiments, they learn first-hand that there are things that can go wrong.

Sonya: Oh, that’s a good point. 

Karen: There are things that you can’t control.

Doing the experiments teaches that science is fallible. When your children perform the experiments, they learn first-hand that there are things that can go wrong. 

Sonya: Or it doesn’t always work if you mess up a little tiny bit.

Karen: It can be something that is very minor. The container you used was not completely clean, and it changed everything in the experiment. Or the day that you do the experiment, compared to when the author of the book did the experiment, the weather conditions might be different, and that could affect your experiment. There are all these little subtleties, and it shows you that science is good to study, but it is fallible.

Sonya: It is fallible. Right. That’s a great point, because I think a lot of times when we’re doing these experiments, we feel pressure that we have to do them exactly right, and if we don’t get the same result as it says, we have failed and it’s been a waste of time. But that’s a great way to look at it. 

Karen: And there’s a lot of failure in science. We hold up great scientists and say, “Look at what they did,” but we don’t often hear all the things that they failed at. All the experiments that failed before they hit upon the one that they could reproduce and that worked and they learned something from. Now, they learned from the failings too, what didn’t work. It’s all about that learning. 

Sonya: And again, that’s developing a relation with those scientists who lived in the past. Now you have a better empathy for what they went through; you see them as persons rather than just “name, accomplishment, check it off, we’re done.” I like that too. These are good reasons, Karen. (laughs) Okay, give me some more. 

Karen: And also, to go with “science is fallible,” you also learn that it’s complicated. When you hear about a study that “proves” (put that in quotes)… 

Sonya: (laughs) I notice you were rolling your eyes there. 

Karen: We see it all the time on the news. This study shows that caffeine is good for you, or drinking so many cups of coffee can benefit your health in this way. And you wait a few months, and then they’ll have a study that shows you how it’s not good for you. But what they never tell you is about the study itself. What was the sample size? What were they actually trying to find out? What were their controls? All those things. This is how science is complicated. There’s so much, as with knowing that it is fallible, there are so many things that could inject error into a study. And that’s why it’s important that experiments are done over and over and over again. They need to be reproducible. If they’re not, then you know something’s wrong. 

Sonya: Yes, and this is going to help our children with their logical thinking skills as well. 

Karen: Yes, they learn that everything they hear, particularly in the science world, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Because as I said: months, years later, what we thought we knew about science may change. And it does change. 

Sonya: It’s like a pendulum swinging to two different extremes a lot of times. That’s a great point. 

Karen: One more. Doing the experiments is the easiest way to teach the scientific method. All those words, “hypothesis,” “theory,” “law,” “principle,” “fact,” those all come out when you’re doing experiments. 

Sonya: Okay, for those who are not versed in science, what is the scientific method? Because you said, “the scientific method,” can you explain that, please? 

Karen: So, with the scientific method, you form a hypothesis: “What do I think will happen when I’m doing this experiment?? A theory can be formed after you’ve performed the experiment. “Ooh, this happened, so I think this is what will always occur.” That’s a theory. 

Sonya: Okay, so you have a hypothesis. Then you do an experiment, and then you form a theory based on the results of that experiment. 

Karen: And when you can prove that theory over and over and over again, it becomes a law. 

Sonya: So if the experiment comes out the same way every time, then you can call your theory a “law.” 

Karen: Yes, so there’s a progression in science. There are things that we have in our world today that are still theories. Now, they’re not usually spoken of in that way, but they are still theories. Evolution comes to mind. Evolution cannot be proved. 

Sonya: But a law, then, would be like gravity. That’s a law because every time I let go of something, it falls downward. 

Karen: Right, we have several laws that Isaac Newton came up with and they are called “laws” because they have been proven over and over and over. 

Sonya: So, he went through that scientific process, the method, right? That’s called “the scientific method,” the sequence of events? 

Karen: Yes. So doing your labs, doing your experiments, helps with that because you are working through those on your own… 

Sonya: Through that whole method and process. 

Karen: Getting that experience, that first-hand experience… 

Sonya: With guidance, which is so helpful. You’re not floundering around by yourself like so many of the scientists had to do. That’s great. 

Karen: So, those are my reasons, beyond just, “you need it for your high school transcript,” or, “to get into college.” 

Sonya: Those are great reasons. It’s very encouraging. Even if a child is not going to pursue a scientific career, those reasons just resonate with Charlotte’s philosophy of a broad education. But let me ask this, now that we’re talking about Charlotte’s philosophy: she was very careful with the elementary children not to use apparatuses very often. So does that mean that labs are not “Charlotte Mason”? 

Karen: No, not at all. You can do many of the middle-school- and high-school-level labs with household items. Now, you might have to go to the store and buy a rubber band or something like that; there may be something you don’t normally have on hand. But you should be able to find what you need in stores. For high school biology, there might be some exceptions. If your child really likes biology, you might want to do all of the labs in the science book and you might have to invest in a microscope or borrow one from a friend. You might need to buy a set of dissection tools and get the specimens for doing dissection. A microscope is an expense if you’re going to get a good quality one. So that might be something you might want to budget for if you think you might need one. Dissection tools and the specimens are not very expensive; you just have to plan for them; make sure you get them before you need them. But most of the experiments are household items. You might use a juice glass. You might use a bowl. You might use vinegar or baking soda or sugar or salt or a battery. I mean, those types of things are what you’re going to use. 

You can do experiments with household items. Don’t be too concerned about not having a complete chemistry lab in your home.

Sonya: Okay, because I always think of it as, “I need all of these specialty chemicals that are going to be kept in a locked cabinet and if it spills, it’s going to burn a hole in my carpet.” That type of thing is what I think of when I think of labs.

Karen: No, but there may be some chemicals, like drain cleaner, that you can get at the store. And, yes, you need to be just as careful with that in your science lab as you would using it to clear a drain. But it’s not going to be these the chemicals that we think of where a chemistry lab…

Sonya: Explodes? (laughs)

Karen: Yeah, that sort of thing. So no worries there on that type of a thing. You can do experiments with household items, and don’t be too concerned about not having a complete chemistry lab in your home. A child who has a love for science, a child who goes on to college and maybe majors in a science, will be able to do the labs at that level with the proper equipment, with a full chemistry lab, with no problem. They learn how to use the equipment in college. So you don’t have to be too concerned about that. A friend of mine was telling me how one of her sons did what most of us do: worked through books for biology or chemistry and did the labs with household items. And he had no problem doing chemistry at the college level, not just one chemistry course but two. 

Sonya: So, what I’m hearing is that the important thing is the mental process and the first-hand experience with things in the world around us. And the actual figuring out how to use equipment is not the hard part, and that will come later. 

Karen: Yes. 

Sonya: Okay, so let me ask one more question though: How often are we doing these experiments? And does it vary depending on if the child’s really science-bent and scientifically-minded, or if the child is much more into literature and English, and they’re doing the science, but it’s not their passion? Does the number of experiments, or the frequency of experiments, vary? 

Karen: It depends on the course. So, for most middle-school- and high-school- level courses, your student will do about three to four labs per chapter. 

Sonya: Per chapter, okay. And how long does the chapter usually take? A chapter a week? 

Karen: Two to twoandahalf weeks for a chapter. So, they might do two experiments in a week if they’re doing four for that chapter. Some chapters might (a very few chapters) have more than three or four, some actually have less than that, so it depends on what material is being covered in that chapter, but on average it’s three to four. So over two to twoandahalf weeks, your child might do three, maybe four, experiments. For biology in particular, we recommend Discovering Design with Biology

Sonya: From Berean Builders by Dr. Jay Wile. 

Karen: Yes. In that course, your children have a choice: they must do all of the experiments that use household items, but then they have a choice of either doing all of the household-item experiments and the microscope experiments, or all of the household-item experiments and the dissection experiments, or all three. 

Sonya: Oh, so they can level it up or down according to their passion. How clever. 

Karen: So, in that case, if you have a child who doesn’t particularly like biology and knows that he’s not going to go into a biology field of study, you can choose household items and one of the other ones. Maybe you choose the dissection one so you don’t have to buy that microscope. (laughs)

Sonya: Yeah, there’s a good point. 

Karen: Or maybe your child is more interested in seeing things through a microscope than he is in cutting something up. You can tailor that part to your child. 

Sonya: I really like how you wrote the schedule into our Individual Studies lesson plans for grades seven and eight, when students are starting to get into the Berean Builder science courses. You wrote those daily lessons so that you’re combining the experiments for that week all on a particular day. 

Karen: And on the day they’re going to do experiments, they have less reading than on a day that does not have an experiment. Because experiments do take time to do, and you need to allow for that in the time you have for your student to do his science. So cut back on the reading when you’re going to do an experiment. 

Sonya: So, what I’m hearing is, you don’t have to be so concerned about keeping lockstep with that book, where “I read this much and then it says to do this experiment, and then it tells me what they what they concluded from the experiment, and after it, there’s more reading.” I don’t have to stop the reading at that point, put it away, go do the experiment, regardless of how much time is left in our schedule for the day, regardless of anything else. I don’t have to be handcuffed by that. I could read on and see, “Oh, there’s another experiment on the next page, read about that,” and then, “Okay, tomorrow I’m going to do both of those hands-on experiments just to reinforce what I read about.” That works? 

Karen: You can do that if that’s what works best for your family. Doing them as you come to them is recommended, but sometimes that doesn’t work in a household like it does in a classroom. So, do what works for your family. 

Sonya: I love that we have the flexibility to make this fit our own families. The ideas that you’ve given us about the importance of them… it’s like, yeah, you can tweak it to make it fit, but if you skip them altogether, you’re doing your child a disservice. 

Karen: Yes, they should have that hands-on experience of doing what they have been reading about. 

Sonya: Forming that first-hand relation, with the emotions, seeing it in the mind’s eye, doing it for yourself, not just watching somebody else do it. I love it. Great ideas. Thanks, Karen.


  1. Thank you for that great article! My DS is entering HS next year and loves science. Do you have a recommendation on where to get dissection kits, etc, for good prices?

    • Hi Anna,

      Great question! Here is Karen Smith’s recommendation:

      “There are a couple of places that sell science materials and equipment to homeschoolers. Both make it possible to buy the one item you need without having to buy enough for a classroom to get that item. Both also sell kits that are specific to science courses, such Apologia and Berean Builders curriculum. My favorite is Home Science Tools, https://www.homesciencetools.com/. They have reasonable prices and good quality tools. Nature’s Workshop Plus is another place that many homeschoolers like to get science materials and equipment, https://www.workshopplus.com/.”

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