Using Labster to Scaffold Learning by Bonnie Nieves‍

Bonnie Nieves, M.Ed.

Students in science courses are typically engaged on lab days. The excitement of using scientific equipment and performing experiments is enough to excite most students about what they are doing. 

One thing that we have to be cautious of is mistaking low academic rigor activities with those that improve scientific knowledge, science and engineering practices (SEP), and critical thinking; what I call the Triangle of Scientific Literacy

Academic discourse plays a crucial role in developing the triangle of scientific literacy. To be honest, until a few years ago I did not realize the importance of the use of language and the exchange of ideas between students and teachers in the classroom. 

By engaging in meaningful academic discourse, students are challenged to think more deeply about the content they are learning and to express their thoughts and opinions clearly and effectively. This helps them to develop the skills they need to analyze information, form arguments, and engage in respectful dialogue with others. 

What’s more, academic discourse encourages students to take ownership of their learning as they actively participate in the creation of new knowledge. In today's rapidly changing world, where knowledge and skills are constantly evolving, this is increasingly important. 

In order for students to be able to engage in this level of discourse they need guidance, modeling, and scaffolds.

When I decided to intentionally incorporate opportunities for academic discourse into my lesson planning I used discussion prompts and articles from multiple sources to encourage students to begin using new terminology in conversations. What I found was that most students readily use tier 1 vocabulary and begin using tier 2, but rarely incorporate tier 3 into meaningful conversations about science.

Additional Points to Consider


  1. The Universal Design for Learning Framework tells us that the use of multiple means of representation in the classroom provides numerous advantages for students of all learning styles and backgrounds. 

When information is presented in a variety of formats, such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, it becomes more accessible and easier for students to understand student motivation and engagement, as it provides a more dynamic and interactive learning experience. 

Ultimately, the use of multiple means of representation can lead to a more inclusive and equitable learning environment, where all students have the opportunity to reach their full potential and succeed.

  1. Science education best practice tells us that providing a common experience for all students creates an entry point for all students to engage with scientific concepts and build schema for deeper learning. The Framework for K-12 Science Education, p. 283 explains:

“Science and engineering practices can actually serve as productive entry points for students from diverse communities—including students from different social and linguistic traditions, particularly second-language learners.” 

Knowing these things, I began building meaningful, rigorous, relevant, and equitable experiences for students. I was looking for:

  • Activities that combine science practices with tier 3 vocabulary and help to develop schema.
  • Ways to involve all students in common laboratory activities whether they were at home or in school.
  • Reading materials that relate directly to the lab activity and are accessible to each student.
  • Interactive or gamified experiences that provide immediate feedback and guidance.
  • Multi-modal support for kinesthetic, visual, and linguistic learners.

This is how I have been able to do all of this and more with Labster

At the start of the school year, I reserved the computer lab for one day every week for Labster simulations. The first simulation they completed was “Lab Safety”. This is a low-stakes, fun simulation that helps kids get familiar with operating controls while reinforcing important lab safety concepts. 

Next, I began to assign simulations with relevant content for each of my 5 classes. Labster provides a lab report template, lab manual, and theory page for each of the simulations. I use these to build instructional activities for students in the classroom. 

The lab manual comes as a downloadable Word document so it is easy to differentiate reading levels to meet the needs of all students; these are also translated into several languages.

Tip 💡 Use ChatGPT to differentiate reading levels! 

Open ChatGPT, write this prompt: “I will provide you with text written at a high school level. I want you to rewrite the text for grade 8-level readers. Do not change the meaning of the text. My first request is” then paste the text of the document.

Flashcard Lists and Review Games with Labster

I use images from the Lab Manual and Theory pages for notes, lab preview, and review. The lab manual for each simulation has definitions and images for many of the tier 2 and 3 words linked within it. 

I use these to create flashcard lists and review games for students. We build capacity for academic discourse through reflection activities in pairs and small groups. 

Table Talk

My favorite reflection activity is Table Talk. In this activity, students are given a six-sided cube with discussion prompts; the color of the background indicates the purpose of the discussion. 

Here is an example:

Use the green side for conversations about supporting claims and ideas. Pair these prompts with tier 2 and 3 vocabulary from the Labster simulation to start the conversation.

Students can use the orange prompts to ask for clarification by filling in the blanks with new vocabulary from the simulation.

Tip 💡 Use ChatGPT to identify tier 2 and 3 vocabulary and put into CSV format to import into Quizlet

Write this prompt “When I give you a selection of text you will return a list of tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3 vocabulary from that text. Your output should be in the form of a table with the words and their definitions. my first request is”  then paste the text of the document.

Double-check that the definitions are appropriate, then type the following prompt “Put the tier 2 and tier 3 terms into csv format”. 

ChatGPT will return text that you can copy and paste directly into Quizlet to make a study set for your students! 

Final Thoughts

By using the amazing support materials Labster provides and making some minor adjustments to my existing class notes, I have been able to create cohesive learning experiences that meet the needs of all students. They interact with terminology and pair it with science practices in the simulation, use the academic vocabulary in classroom conversations with me and their peers, and are able to reinforce their knowledge using flashcards in and out of class.

About the Author - Bonnie Nieves, M. Ed.

Bonnie Nieves, M.Ed., is a science educator at Nipmuc Regional High School in Massachusetts and the author of Be Awesome on Purpose, a book that invites readers along on her journey as she seeks to improve her biology students’ learning outcomes with some very unique tools: her own motivation, reflection, and empathy. Bonnie is passionate about creating immersive and authentic experiences that fuel curiosity and creating student-centered, culturally responsive learning spaces that promote equity and inclusion. She is a Google Level 2 certified educator, serves on the MassCUE board of directors, and is a member of the National Association of Biology Teachers, Institute for Evolutionary Science, and National Science Teaching Association. You can read Bonnie’s article on Using Laboratory Simulations in K-12 Education, check out her latest online courses for professional development at, and connect with her on Twitter @biologygoddess as well as on LinkedIn

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