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Author Topic: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?  (Read 339 times)

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Consequentium

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Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« on: October 09, 2017, 02:21:06 PM »

I realize the title is pretty strident, but I'm convinced that laboratory classes are poor pedagogical tools when you consider what they exist to do and what other educational activities students can be doing with the time spent.

In a typical lab, students are pressed for time to use a technique for the first (and often last) time, as they compete for insufficient space at a sparing number of apparatus. It's very typical to hear a senior undergraduate chemistry major say something to the effect of, "I don't know how to run an NMR, my lab partner used to take care of that while I did some of the other stuff." Of course, not all schools have an NMR machine for students to learn on, and I realize that I should be thankful for my expensive 1st world and 1st class (I hope) education. But I'm not really being an ingrate, I'm just making the observation that I don't learn that much in the lab for my effort, and neither do most people.

I say this because I recently had a voltammetry lab, and I am still pretty convinced I had no idea what I did--that I learned essentially nothing. I mention this lab in particular because I think it was emblematic of a lot of lab problems: Lab instructions were vague, and students who prepared their lab notebooks in advance arrived in class to discover that the experiment had changed enough to add some time. The equipment was old and finicky, and it would have been amazing to play with, except that preparations of multiple solutions and the actual scanning process took a considerable amount of time... enough to go over the allotted lab period. Everything was done in a rush, so there was no time to understand the theory being applied.

I don't think that this kind of experience is uncommon, or for that matter, new. I remember reading Glenn Seaborg's autobiography where he writes about recreating lab experiments at home with his lab partner after hours, since it gave them the time to really understand what they were doing. I find myself trying to do the same thing, to some extent. I have a small lab setup at home, though I'm not able to conduct more advanced experiments. I also find that even when I'm pressed for time in the lab I work in as an undergraduate research assistant, it's a very different experience. Partly it's because I actually develop skills by iterative use, as opposed to merely familiarizing myself with them in a three hour blaze of panicked glory.

But here's the thing: I get it. I really do. I understand why lab classes are designed this way: It's about familiarization rather than skill development. The question I ask is whether mere familiarization is worth the time and money invested in these lab courses? There is an argument that they exist to teach scientific writing, but I think it would be far more useful to subject students to a scientific reading course. The "run before you walk" approach seems to dominate in this particular area for whatever reason, and lab reports end up being incredibly time-consuming when students have to process multiple datasets, leading to the same rush-factor I've been putting forth as a main problem. If there is anything I've regretted about my chemical education thus far, it's how much of it I sped over without really getting to look into it or wrestle with it.

That said, I understand why labs can be useful, and I don't think they're completely useless pedagogically. I'm just incredibly disappointed with them, and I think they can be a lot better. Some suggestions I have off the top of my head are to conserve time to create the challenges where the challenge can be of the most use. Making standard solutions is a valuable skill for a chemist, but at a certain level of education, it's a waste of lab time. It's more important that you spend time learning how to use an instrument that you've never seen before than in mixing solutions you learned to calculate in high school. Another suggestion is that more pedagogy should be focused on reading and perhaps even replicating literature. It took me a long time to read scientific papers because I didn't know how to read one. Eventually, I taught myself that skill. Yet I've been writing lab reports since late in elementary school. This is why I'm not sure that writing lab reports has a direct line to being able to think critically about scientific communications.

Anyway, rant over. But I encourage people to tell me what they agree and (especially) disagree with. Some of this might just be my experience, and maybe you attended an institution that did labs really well.
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Arkcon

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Re: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2017, 03:24:00 PM »

Quote
But here's the thing: I get it. I really do. I understand why lab classes are designed this way: It's about familiarization rather than skill development

That is pretty much it.  And its hard for people to accept, but it is very important.  Many, many, many times, I've shared a lab with a person, same Bachelors degree as I have, and they might have gotten much better textbook grades (or maybe not.)   Yet, in the lab, they were simply dangerous or useless.  I'm talking two classes of people: people who hate to sit at their desk, pl,an out their experiment, and are proud of themselves (and get accolades from rotten supervisors) to call me lazy for sitting at my desk and writing my experiment plans.

Then there are those people who mince through the tasks. Poke.  One.  Key.  On.  The.  Spectrometer.  At.  A.  Time.  Two groups of people who have no ability to grasp the nuances of what a laboratory is for.

Usually, such people move on to phone support.  But they can't leave my side fast enough.

Now, howzat for a rant.  >:D
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wildfyr

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Re: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2017, 04:53:39 PM »

It took me a year of grad school to really notice how massive the gap in skillset is between a random bachelors student in lab and someone who is spending at least a few hours a day at the bench.

I TAed my first Orgo 1 lab with essentially the same skillset as the students I had. I was fresh from my bachelors, teaching people 2-3 years younger how to do organic lab. It did not go very smoothly. 2 semesters later, I knew how to help solve their problems and move things along.

6 semesters later I was a god to them. "DON'T THROW ANYTHING AWAY! I can almost always save your product!" is the mantra I told them, and I was virtually always right.

There is something to be said, however, with students gaining some comfort level of just being in a lab environment. Even they don't become chemists, many of them will be in such an environment as phlebotomists, or QC techs, or engineers. That is worthwhile in itself.
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Arkcon

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Re: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« Reply #3 on: October 10, 2017, 12:08:58 AM »

Now, Glen Seaborg has given us the the answer -- you can make productive use of a lab demonstration and build the skillset that will be valuable later.  You just have to do it like he eventually did:  in a smaller group, with more time.

Sadly, lab courses aren't meant to teach these concepts by these methods.  They're giant arenas where as many people as possible try to do as much as possible together.  Now, there's great value in learning to work together.  But I feel its better to get techniques understood, with minimal distraction, and then, once everyone has the proper respect for the lab and techniques, everyone can work together, from the same strong basis.

I think is is even shown by the evidence.  Undergraduate labs suck, and high school labs actually have kids running around, grabbing stuff at random.  But after a few years, with some more maturity, people are able to get their work done.  Same place, same people, just more maturity, I'm guessing.
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Babcock_Hall

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Re: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« Reply #4 on: October 10, 2017, 03:28:39 AM »

As someone who teaches undergraduate labs, I can say that lack of preparation by the students is a big factor in the students' not getting more out of their time.  Some want to walk in with no preparation and simply follow directions.  Of course when something goes wrong, they have no clue as to what to do.
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azmanam

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Re: Why Do Lab Classes Suck? How Can We Make Them Unsuck?
« Reply #5 on: October 10, 2017, 05:01:38 AM »

Quote
lack of preparation by the students is a big factor in the students' not getting more out of their time.

Sure. As someone who also teaches undergrad labs, I see that too (that, or they copied their notebook pre-lab (and probably post-lab) entries from former students' notebooks flying around the Greek houses...). But, at the same time, I can sympathize with part of that. Could you have read a couple of pages of theory on TLC, then come in and run a TLC? Reading about how to use the UV-VIS, and actually running a UV-VIS are two completely different mental tasks.

I have them watch supplemental videos showing people demonstrating how to do, use, and interpret the techniques and instruments we'll be using. But they're still somewhat stuck until they actually get their hands on a sep funnel and realize, 'oh, I really need to know which layer is which, don't I?' That's not something they can read about and really appreciate ahead of time.
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