Labbing it up!

Posted by: | November 8, 2008 | 8 Comments

As a science student, I find labs to be perhaps one of the most interesting and important aspects of my undergraduate learning. Not only is this the one really hands-on thing I get to do with my undergraduate education, but it’s the one time I actually get to feel like a scientist, the one time I get to interact with a smaller group of students and feel like I’m applying concepts from the classroom in a real setting. So this post is really to try to tell you guys about some of my experiences with labs at UBC, to highlight some of the weaknesses, but to also point out some of the strengths and great experiences I have had as a student.

I can’t say I always loved lab sessions- particularly not first year physics. There are definite problems with outdated facilities and equipment, and I certainly have come across professors who make it quite clear that labs are run on a very small budget. Lab equipment, for some bizarre reason, is quite expensive- something like 100 enzymes (as in, 100 proteins) can cost $62, and that’s for an enzyme that’s pretty commonly used in a lab (in this case, I looked up Taq polymerase, a commonly used enzyme in biochemistry, biology, etc. labs). I definitely wish that more resources were put towards these labs. Having said that, I definitely think that there are some common labs that need reworking. In chem 211 last year, for instance, we spent lots of labs doing pretty much the same sorts of things- dilutions and titrations. Granted, these are important skills, but having spent most of first year doing these same sorts of labs, and then having to do the same labs again for half a year is hardly fun work, and I really thought that students could be exposed to a greater variety of experiments and skill sets in this course in particular. Other labs were great, though- chem 235 was well put-together, and really got students thinking about connecting concepts learned in class with experimentation. It also focused on a variety of different types of experiments, so I felt like I learned a lot over the course of the semester.

This year in particular, however, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity of getting to do some really amazing things in my physiology lab course. Some of the labs we get to do are really special, mostly because we’re a small class. In my first lab this year, for instance, I got to operate on live rats. Yesterday, we got to go into the LSI and look at real, human brains in order to identify structures and cranial nerves and the like- these are the sorts of experiences that got me into science, and piqued my interest initially. In general, I’ve found both of my lab courses to be more applicable to the type of work seen I’ve seen (or have done myself) in a research lab- so it disheartens me to hear students complain about labs, and how silly they are, and about how much time they take, because I personally find them to be the ultimate learning experience. Some labs I think could certainly use some tweaking in order to figure out a way of spending money more productively, and teaching students a variety of skill sets rather than simply titration and dilution. On the whole, however, being in a lab, getting your hands on equipment and chemicals and so on is in and of itself important- and possibly the best kind of learning one can do, as you really get to synthesize concepts you’ve learned (especially if you’ve done the pre-reading and know why you’re doing things). Even lab reports, as much as I sometimes complain about them, have been hugely helpful in getting me to understand material and see the physical manifestation of what I’ve learned from my textbooks and lectures. Learning to ask a question, try to answer it, figure out a way of doing it that’s not simply outlined for you on a cookie-cutter recipe, and then figuring out why your results don’t match up with literature or expectations really makes you think, and is a true reflection of what actual science is. Because science isn’t about you telling others about what you know- it’ about identifying what you don’t, and figuring out a way to solve that problem, and going through obstacles along the way, and trying to explain what you’ve seen. It involves a great depth of analysis and knowledge and the ability to really understand the mechanisms underlying the process under investigation- and this is what I find most exciting about science, and it’s something that we sort of get to do in our labs (although we’re usually given the ‘recipe’).

I sort of wish that more students got to experience what I have- not simply other science students, but students from a variety of faculties. Some areas of study obviously aren’t as conducive to labs, but anything that makes students really engage with what they’re learning is, in my opinion, a great use of our tuition fees, and a great opportunity to really learn.


8 Comments so far

  1. Faithful Lightning on November 8, 2008 9:22 am

    As someone who left science a long time ago, I have to say a good part of it was because of how little lab work (or experimentation of any kind) we did in high school, despite having great facilities. It was really sad that we focused so much on rote learning from textbooks, when there is so much potential – even for self-run, homemade experiments. I think its great that there is at least some opportunity in university to regain that (even if the equipment is crazy expensive).

    I also think the same philosophy you suggest can be applied to other subjects with a little bit of creativity. Studying politics may not be conducive to operating on live rats, but there are plenty of ways to get students involved in the subject without reading and writing journal articles all the time. Getting students to try and engage with the political process is one way (and is sometimes done at UBC, to the credit of a number of professors) – writing letters to the editor or submitting short pieces to try and get them into the media is a simple way. But during elections (which we seem to have a lot of) there are even more ways to get involved. Even if people don’t want to be partisan – I heard from a friend at a law school in the states that their law school ran an exit poll…what a great way for students to get real insight into what’s going on on election day!

    But students can also be involved in the real process of research. Too often professors use only one or two (or no) research assistants, and RAs are used only for number crunching and text editting. I’m part of a research group here (admittedly all graduate students, but the model could be extended) that does a lot of really collaborative research. So, for instance, we had hundreds of pages of qualitative survey data (focus groups) from Northern Uganda, that needed to be carefully analysed for information on a certain topic (reparations for war crimes). It would have taken one person a very long time, and they still would have missed lots. Instead, about fifteen of us split into teams and spent a few hours over a couple of weeks. Each team produced a summary of their section, and that was passed on to the leader who wrote up the report – which went direct to the UN. The point is less how it worked, and more that it gave all 15 of us the chance to participate in something real for a change – and to get really excited about the type of research we do. Something we did is feeding directly into the peace process is Uganda – and that’s enough to keep me studying day to day when its kind of boring.

    So yes – students should do more labs. Students should do more of anything in any subject that is really what the subject is about, rather than a pale facsimile.

    – Teddy

  2. Sonja on November 8, 2008 10:19 pm

    Maria, I can’t help but wonder if your positive opinion towards labs has been heavily influenced by your physiology lab, which is limited to a select few top students. I’m not going to disagree with the fact that getting to operate on live animals is interesting and exciting, but in order to get more balanced view on lab components of UBC courses, I’d suggest taking a look at labs which are accessible to a larger number of students, and seeing how effective they are in stimulating learning outside of the classroom. CHEM 233 is one glowing example (from what I’ve heard), but, as a student in Chemistry, I feel it is the exception rather than the norm.

    I would suggest a quick poll of students in, say, Chem or Bio, investigating what, if any, benefits they have derived from the laboratory component of their courses. One view that has been echoed by members of the UBC administration is, “we design labs in a certain way and it’s up to the student to get the most out of these labs”. But if the majority of the student body feels that time spent on labs is fruitless, it might be practical to re-think how the labs are organized, in order to make them work for most students (again not just the top ones).

    You bring up some interesting points regarding the importance of labs in learning, and I think these are valid and needed to be pointed out. In the future, I will try to put together an article outlining why I feel that most of the labs I’ve dealt with in my undergraduate career fail to meet their objective at stimulating learning outside of the classroom.

    – Sonja

  3. Maria_Jogova on November 8, 2008 11:39 pm

    So I think there are definitely problems with some labs- the 211 lab, for instance. I think that a lot of the problems students have with labs are also problems they have with the TAs teaching those labs rather than the lab courses themselves, which can definitely make the labs problematic. I also think there are some labs that seem silly at the time, but in retrospect one realizes that they’re actually quite helpful and taught you valuable skills. There are definitely lab components that are frustrating- I had problems with Bio 140, for instance, and some of the quizzes we had there, and things like the lab exam we had to write at the end. I think the lab itself, however, was worthwhile and added to my education. I think part of it is getting over students’ thoughts of “this lab doesn’t teach me anything” and actually thinking about why the lab was designed, and what objectives it had. Perhaps this is something that profs should tell students before the start of the lab. But I think that on the whole, labs in and of themselves are really important and worthwhile. The post was more meant to highlight the experiences I’ve had with labs over my UBC education, which has been overwhelmingly positive.

  4. Fire Hydrant on November 9, 2008 4:43 pm

    Unfortunately, I suspect that a good number of undergraduate labs exist solely because the department has a strong gut feeling that undergrads should have lab experience. They don’t necessarily have intended learning outcomes, material to cover, etc. When profs teaching such labs are asked what students are supposed to learn in their lab, it can be a very difficult question to answer, and they really struggle with it.

    There is a movement afoot to change this, out of the Wieman thing. When Wieman came here he had a very low opinion of labs, because he felt computer simulations did a better job of almost everything. Not sure if he still feels that way.

  5. Sonja on November 9, 2008 9:09 pm

    “I suspect that a good number of undergraduate labs exist solely because the department has a strong gut feeling that undergrads should have lab experience.”

    Amen to that!

    And I can personally attest to, “When profs teaching such labs are asked what students are supposed to learn in their lab, it can be a very difficult question to answer, and they really struggle with it”.

    I tried talking to a prof from Chem about the lab components of two courses I’ve taken. My questions were, “What are you expecting students to get out of these labs?” and “Do you think the current model meets these objectives?”

    The response I got essentially boiled down to: “Labs are what you make of them– if you don’t find them stimulating, then surely you aren’t engaged enough, and you should try to figure out for yourself why we make these labs a mandatory part of your coursework”

    Now, pardon my bluntness, but with so many competing academic and co-curricular interests, I really don’t find that trying to read the mind of whoever designed these labs several decades ago, in order to puzzle out what they wanted to achieve with them, is the most productive use of my time. From anecdotal evidence, I know that many of my classmates feel the same way.

  6. Mark MacLean on November 10, 2008 12:20 am

    It is certainly fair that the overall objectives of a lab (or any other part of a course, for that matter) are something that should be openly discussed with students throughout the course. On a lab-by-lab basis, the technical goals of each lab are typically laid out in the lab manual. As for the overall objectives, in some labs (and courses) they may be more clearly presented than in others.

    On the other hand, I would also hope that students would have in mind, or be willing to figure out, what they would like to get out of their education. I suspect my colleague in chemistry who thinks “labs are what you make of them” really means that students have a responsibility to be engaged in their education if they wish to get something out of it. I think there is a generally high level of frustration amongst many faculty with students who simply don’t “show up” (intellectually speaking) in their courses. (I am marking midterms at the moment, so excuse me for being in this group today — I have noted that 95%+ of the students who are failing do not show up to class or even do their assignments.)

    Maria remarks, as many students do, that the lab is a place where you can get your hands onto science. However, the rest of the course is that place, too, should you choose it to be. I observe that many students appear to think being in university is like being on trip where the tour guide has the job to program every minute of your adventure and is the only one responsible for whether or not you enjoy the trip. For a generation so keen on adventure travel, I observe very few students who truly seek to be independent, let alone adventurous, intellectually.

  7. Sonja on November 10, 2008 4:35 am

    Mark: it’s difficult to be independent and adventurous in courses when your time is taken up with long lab write-ups. The bulk of my time goes towards showing “sample calculations”, which are outlined in the lab manual anyway; so not only am I wasting my time doing something tedious, I’m wasting my time essentially replacing formulas in the lab manual with results I obtained in the lab.

    I would be happy if labs moved away from the hand-holding, spoon-feeding approach, and if we were marked on our ability to analyze concepts, or think critically, rather than what I consider to be just busywork.

  8. thoughts from a stranger on November 10, 2008 5:22 am

    So I agree with the sample calculations- but what I’m mostly talking about in the post aren’t so much the lab reports as the labs themselves. When it comes to lab reports, I agree that showing sample calculations that are the same essentially every week is incredibly tedious, and, in my opinion, completely unnecessary. That’s one of the huge problems I had with chem 211- the fact that most of my lab report was devoted to writing out equations that we were given on formula sheets, and that were incredibly long.

    Putting those aside, however, I think that even writing a lab report develops valuable skills of analysis and scientific writing. Sure, reports take a long time- but they give you the opportunity to learn about how data should be presented, to analyze and discuss your results, and to learn about the process you’re investigating through writing your introduction.


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