The “Checks”/”Emails” lab: a good start to the semester

[This post was updated on 9/10/2020 to repair broken links.]

Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.
Checks and their corresponding emails, side by side. Photo by M. Hoefnagels.

We just finished our first week of classes at the University of Oklahoma, and my nonmajors students trooped dutifully into lab on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. To get them talking to each other, one of the icebreaker activities we have done for many years is the “Checks lab,” a lesson on the nature of science. (Note that this website has been archived. After clicking the link above, you’ll have to scroll down to “Social Context” and click the “Checks Lab” link.) According to the Checks lab page, the activity was originally developed in 1992 by Steve Randak and was modified in 1999 by Judy Loundagin.

In case you’re not familiar with this activity, here’s a summary. Each team of students is given an envelope containing copies of 16-17 checks that are made out to various payees. Students are told to withdraw four checks at random and propose a scenario that could account for the checks. They then withdraw four more and revise their scenario to account for the new information. After one more round of withdrawing two more checks, they aren’t allowed to see any more checks. At that point, the class as a whole comes together to figure out what actually happened to the people writing the checks.

Since each team sees a different subset of the checks, and no one sees them all, students may not agree on what happened and when. Depending on how deep the instructor wants to go into the nature of science, the ensuing discussion can go in any number of directions. To me, the main points are that scientists never get 100% complete information, that other researchers may have information that your group doesn’t have, and that collaboration is a valuable way to get as much of the story as possible. The website where I found this activity has a huge number of ideas for expanding on these and many others when teaching about the nature of science; I recommend it.

Over the summer, however, I got to thinking about whether students these days actually write checks (or know what they are). I did some asking around, and it turns out that they do—but they don’t write nearly as many as we did in our youth. They buy a lot of things online, and even when they pay for something in person, they are likely to use a debit or credit card. So the trusty old “checks lab” seems a bit outdated.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so, because Judith Lederman and her colleagues published an updated version in The Science Teacher for September 2015, 82(6):57-61. This new version includes copies of emails instead of checks. Hurray! The emails themselves have been posted to NSTA’s The Science Teacher Connections, Sept. 2015 edition (scroll down to Sept. 2015 and use the link below “The E-mail Lab”); here’s a direct link to the Word document they provide at that site.

Matt Taylor has upped the ante a little bit more: He turned the Word document into a PowerPoint (to be printed at four slides per sheet) that has a reduced emphasis on the AOL and hotmail logos. We used these mock emails in our labs last week, and they worked great; if you would like me to email you a copy, please write a comment in this blog post. In the meantime, kudos to all who developed, modified, and shared this activity.

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146 Responses to The “Checks”/”Emails” lab: a good start to the semester

  1. Rowan Wepener says:

    I’d really love a copy of this activity please. We usually use the ChecksLab but I’d love to use this more current version! TIA!

  2. I took some critiques and suggestions from other teachers and my son’s tweaked the Distance Learning version of the Email Lab. It has an intro on the opening page, and now the thumbnail images still easily show the email headers with names, subject, date, etc.  There’s also follow up questions to help the kids see how the simulation parallels “real science.”

    https://benroisen.github.io/Email_Lab/

    My plan is to put the kids in Break Out Rooms (BOR) in groups of 2-3, making sure it’s an even number. I’ll intro it to the class as a whole before they get started. They are trying to figure out what’s going on in the lives of some people by using emails (like the FBI might do in an investigation, and it parallels how scientists try to figure out how things evolved using fossils, etc). 

    They get 4 initially and come up with an initial story line (“Hypothesis”) and give their evidence and reasoning for what they think is happening (is the guy married/divorced/when, is someone sick, etc). After showing the link and reading the intro together and discussing, I’ll put the link in the chat.
    I’ll then send them in, telling one kid of each BOR to open up the link and give them ~5 min (depending on how they’re doing) to read through the emails and start coming up with a storyline. I’ll go in and out of all the BORs to check that they’ve figured out how to read and reposition the emails.

    I’m dealing with 9th graders, so I’ll pop them out of the BORs after the 5 min and emphasize that they now have to put their best guess of what’s going on in this guy’s life and their evidence, but they don’t have to be RIGHT at this point. I’ll pop them back in for about another 5-10 min, to let them get everything set up, then bring them out again.

    I’ll explain that just like scientists will keep collecting data or FBI investigators will keep hacking and decoding emails, they’ll get some more emails that they can then look at and use to modify or change their storyline. I’ll give them ~10-15 min, popping in/out of their rooms to gauge how fast their working, and to encourage students to not go too fast, or too slow.

    Depending on, how they’re doing, I may just tell them they can do the final 2 emails or pop them out to do so. I’ll give them 5-10 min to do that. 

    They then compare with another group (by manually putting the kids from pairs of different Breakout rooms together, it’s why I created an even number of rooms).  In those larger groups, they compare emails (discovering some groups got a few different emails, like differing scientists sometimes get data others didn’t) and storylines (discovering the same evidence can have more than one interpretation).  

    Finally, they come up with their final hypothesis and answer some questions to force home the ways this parallels science, why hypotheses are considered tentative, and make them hopefully understand why more data makes you more confident in your conclusions. If you don’t like my questions, you can tell the kids to ignore them or put N/A. If you’ve got any suggestions for edits, let me know, I may have my son revamp it again.

    It ultimately creates a .txt file that a kid can either print out, upload, copy/paste into a google doc and submit. One txt file will be created per group, it’s why for the name field they’re encouraged to put multiple names, so my plan is to have them do it as a group assignment. A limitation is that unless you’ve got some unusual settings in your video conferencing software, only one kid can manipulate the shared screen. You could get around this by having each kid work independently and only do the BOR for the final collaboration. I’m expecting all told, it’ll easily take 50-70 min for them to complete, if not a bit more.

  3. Sarah R says:

    Could I please get a copy of the materials? Thanks!

  4. Monica says:

    Can I get a copy of the materials please?

  5. Jan Dykes says:

    I would Koike to have a copy of the updated activity. Thank you!

  6. Mark Richards says:

    Hello, I teach biology and love to use the checks lab but would love an updated version as most my students have never seen a check before. Thanks!

  7. Rosann Brunton says:

    Any chance I could also get a copy? Thank you so much!

  8. Honour says:

    Hi! Would love a copy of the materials if its still available! Thank you! 🙂

  9. Linda A. says:

    Could I please get a copy of the lab, please? Thanks!

  10. Richard Harris says:

    I have enjoyed the checks lab a lot and would love to use this going forward. Thank you in advance if you could send me the resource.

  11. Brittany Musser says:

    Do you mind sending me a copy? I love this lab and have been trying all day to come up with a way to adapt it to distance learning.

  12. Shoshana Kops says:

    Hi, can you please send me the e-mail version of the lab?

  13. Angela Webb says:

    I’ve always liked the checks lab, but this update sounds awesome. Plus, I’m teaching remotely now. Would you please share a copy of this activity with me? Thank you!

  14. Alpha Toothman says:

    I’d enjoy a copy of the email lab please.

  15. Joe says:

    Can I please get a copy of this activity? The links in the article no longer work.

  16. elizabeth allen says:

    I would love to see the power point with the emails in it. Also do you use both the checks AND the emails at the same time? Just curious

    • Hi, sorry I missed your comment! Just pick one, either the checks or the emails. We like using the emails version because students don’t find it as dated as the checks lab. Maybe some day we’ll remake it into a series of SnapChat messages.
      I’ll email you the activity 🙂

  17. Sarah says:

    Hi, I would love to have the PowerPoint. I’ve been doing this lab for years and I am trying to make it work remotely and would love to see what you’ve done with it. Thanks so much!

  18. Melissa says:

    I would like a copy of this lesson!

  19. H. Janik says:

    Thank you for the great article, post, and comments. I’d like to try the online version with my kids; but, I am also requesting any additional resources that you can offer. Thanks, again.

  20. Steven says:

    Thanks for the article. I would love a copy of the updated emails!

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