Scaffolding Science Labs in Middle School

>>> Written by Shantel Popp

Grade 8 Science – Fluids Unit

Scaffolding is an important aspect of teaching that impacts all of the learners in our classroom. Scaffolding in my classroom refers to goal setting with my students and highlighting the key learning pieces of the assignment. Together as a class, we build up the skill set each student needs using incremental steps in order to reach the assignment goal. In order to effectively scaffold science labs, I have developed a method that allows students to practice their skills online, and then take these experiences and use them in a hands-on way during labs. This allows for great differentiation as mixed-abilities grouping allows students to learn from each other as they work through the assignment.

The first resource I want to introduce you to is called the “Viscosity Explorer” ( It is an online website that lets you virtually experiment with different fluids. You can alter the flow rate of the fluid by changing the temperature. There are many different fluids to choose from including water, honey, oil, and corn syrup. The features of the website allow students to manipulate the viscosities of different fluids and also compare the same fluid at two different temperatures. This is a way for students to develop their language around viscosity and flow rate, and also manipulate materials that they might not be able to do so readily (and quickly) during one class period. It also allows for different pacing in the classroom, as some lab groups may want to repeat a part of the procedure. This ability to go back and revisit is a key piece for learners who need more time to understand a concept or idea.

Measurement of oil

The complement to this lab is a kinesthetic experience for students in my classroom as they measure flow rate and viscosity of oil at different temperatures (cold, room temperature, and warm). They already have the prior knowledge of this topic from the virtual experience and they fly through the understanding of the lab in front of them as they manipulate the materials at their lab bench. I have also seen my students become better at graphing and interpreting graphs using this approach. The students are highly motivated to have excellent observations during this hands-on lab as they have prior knowledge on what to expect from their virtual lab.

The second virtual tool I want to explain is “Float or Sink” ( which deals directly with density, and using the mass and volume of different shapes to see if they float or sink in different fluids. Students use the scale and the graduated cylinder to first find mass and volume, and then calculate density. They then “drop” the object in a pail of water, and should be able to predict if it will float or sink. Another great feature of this website is that you can alter the density of the fluid, meaning that while some objects might sink in 1 g/mL, they might actually float in a fluid with a density of 2 g/mL.

Float or sink

This practice lab gives students instant feedback on floating or sinking, and allows them to quickly determine if their answers for density were correct based on what the object does in a pail of liquid.

After this lab, students have the opportunity to show their learning in groups at lab benches by using the mass and volume of water, oil, and saturated salt solution, and calculate the density of these liquids. The engagement is high and the confidence these students have in their lab skills is remarkable because they have already been exposed to the type of procedural work that needs to be completed in order to be successful.

The Takeaway: This scaffolded approach is a great complement to the idea of mastery learning, and seeing all of our students reach a point where their understanding of a particular concept is meeting or exceeding curriculum expectations.

Shantel Popp@MsPoppScience