Science Labs

There is a growing, glowing discussion about the usefulness of college science labs that was started with an anti-lab post by Steve Gimbel and responded to, with various degrees of pro-lab sentiment by Janet Stemwedel, Chad, Chad again, Chad yet again, Razib, Jeremy and RPM and numerous commenters on all of their posts (also check older posts on the topic by Sean Carroll and Janet). Of course, I felt a need to chime in. I teach labs, after all (and I took many as a student as well).
The core of the problem is the very existence of the institution we call ‘college’.
Let me explain.

There is no such thing as college in most countries in the world. There is 1-12 education. And there is University. The 1-12 education is supposed to produce well-rounded citizens. University is supposed to produce experts and professionals. Different systems in different countries have varied success in achieving the two goals, and of course, the school systems are evolving everywhere all the time, so it is hard to pick one and call it typical. Perhaps we can pick one and call it “19th century German University model”…
I will take an example of my own background, from schools in old Yugoslavia (that has changed since then, too, but I don’t know the details). By the time I graduated from the 12th grade I hade under my belt:
12 years of ‘Serbo-Croatian language and world literature’, 12 years of English as a foreign language and 4 years of French as a second foreign langauge.
12 years of math, including algebra, geometry, calculus, some formal logic, etc.
12 years of PE, 10 years of art (including some history and theory) and 10 years of music (including some history and theory).
2 years (the last two in high school) of ‘Defense and Protection’ (a small country cannot afford a professional army – all citizens are part of defense, including kids, and everyone needs to know how the defense is organized, what to do in case of attack, and how to fire a rifle with some precision); 2 years (the last two in high school) of civics, which, in a socialist country, had an official title of “Marxism and the Essentials of Socialist Workers’ Self-management”, which, just like theology classes which replaced them later, are the most boring and hated classes of all.
2 years of “Natural and Social Science” (grades 1 and 2), 2 years of “Natural Science” and “Social Science” as separate classes (grades 3-4), 8 years of history, 6 years of geography (which included not just political geography of the world, Europe and Yugoslavia in 6th, 7th and 8th grade respectively, but also basics of cosmology, astronomy, earth, marine and atmospheric science), 6 years of Technology (from woodworking through computers – punchcards at that time in history – from business management to economics).
8 years of physics, 8 years of chemistry, 8 years of biology and, because of my major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, also a year each of botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, biochemistry and molecular biology. Oh, and Biology Lab! Which was a combo of exercises usually found in physiology, histology, cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry labs. And that was the only lab we ever had through 12 years of schooling! In other science classes, the teacher would often do an experiment as a demo, or send an object around the classroom for us to see and touch, but there we no labs whatsoever. That was not the point.
At the end, we had to do an independent project, write a small thesis and defend it.
For all purposes, the high school diploma, received at the age ot 18 or 19, is equivalent to a college degree from a US school. Broad education. Little or no specialization yet. Actually, the curriculum I had, described above, was a result of a hotly debated reform, in which there were majors. Kids before me had it even broader – perhaps a little less specialized biology classes, but also some philosophy, logic, sociology and psychology classes instead, something I sorely miss
Once you graduated from high school you were employable. Only a very small percentage of the population managed to pass tough entry exams and go to the University. Once there, if you are studying physics, there is no art and music any more. You are doing four years of physics and nothing else.
If you are studying economics, you cannot, just for fun, treck half across town to take a biology course, because the Biology Faculty serves only its own students, those who passed their own entry exams. University is more like an administrative assembly of a number of separate schools than a unitary school. It is more like a University System than a US-style University with all of its interdisciplinary studies and such, for better or for worse – each system has its own pros and cons.
At the end of four years (or five or six for fields like medicine or veterinary medicine), with your freshly minted Bachelors Degree, you are physicist. You are a professional and an expert. Or you are a physician (after a couple of more years of residency) or a veterinarian, or a lawyer, or an economist. You are licenced to practice your profession. Can you imagine someone with a BS in physics from a US college running his/her own lab?
Out of all the graduates, only a handful, those that really wanted to teach at the University, would go on to graduate school to get their Masters and PhDs. Pretty much every old professor would groom his/her own replacement over the years. Often, it was older people who, after a couple of decades in the field, would go back to school to get those degrees in order to be able to, for instance, run an Institute. But then, there are relatively few universities, thus very few job openings to apply for.
At the University, there are labs galore. Almost every course has a lab component. And they are tough! But they are interesting and useful for the most part. You are not learning how fun science is, or what the scientific method is. You are training to become a professional.
Have you read Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table”? It describes quite well the atmosphere at a European university a century ago. Nobody is holding your hand. You get a task to make something, you get supplies and equipment you need, and it is up to you to figure out how to get it done by tomorrow, even if that means you stay in the lab all night. The goal was not to help everyone to become a scientist, but to make it so harsh that only the best, the brightest, the most persistent, the most hard-working, the most stubborn, and the most emotionally stable people can survive the system and remain in school to the very end. Such people, it was deemed at the time, ‘deserved’ to get their degrees and all the perks that come with it (i.e., not working 16 hours a day in a factory). It was a form of hazing, weeding out the week ones.
Now let’s take an intercontinental flight to the USA. I just filled the paperwork for my son’s application for high school. His entire high school science curriculum appears to me like my fifth grade drawn out over four years. High school diploma is essentially meanignless.
College is, really, four years of remedial education. But it also tries to give some weight to the BS degree by making students major in something and become “semi-experts”. There is, thus, a constant tension between the need for college to provide broad liberal education (what K-12 education should have done by then) and the need to produce professionals. Thus, both of the goals are somewhat compromised. The college degree is much more than just a glorified high school diploma, but it is not an equivalent of a European University degree yet. As a result, one is forced to go to grad school in order to become a REAL professional in the field. And it is only in grad school that work becomes focused and detailed, like at European Universities.
So, the dilemma about lab courses for non-science majors is a very American problem.
If the college is supposed to be about a broad liberal education (like European high school), then demos by professors at the front of the room during lectures are enough. If it is supposed to be production of professionals, than lots of tough labs should be the norm. It is hard to have both.
Another US specificity is the often-voiced opinion that kids, both science and non-science majors, need to understand how science works and what the scientific method is. But that is mainly because of the American culture. There is a real problem here with so many kids growing up in religious, creationist families, with no interest in science, no understanding of science and even with fear of science that we feel we need to counteract. This is a problem that just did not exist in Yugoslavia, where your local drunk at the bar is likely reading his Feynman or Dawkins over beer and wants to talk about string theory with the equally drunk guy on the neighboring barstool. But here, we feel a need to expose the non-science majors to hands-on science and scientific method because it is not part of the culture and we feel that if we do not do it they will go on and join the Discovery Institute upon graduation. This is a serious issue which I do not know how to address.
I have taught/TA’d various types of biology labs to biology majors at NCSU, as well as adult non-science majors at a smaller school (see my Lab 1, Lab 2, Lab 3 and Lab 4 for my approach to teaching Bio lab to adults). Some labs were follow-the-recipe kind that everyone detested, but some were really good because of the effort of the professor to make the lab good. A well designed lab course will have a few small recipe elements, but for the most part, the students are problem-solving, hypothesizing, modifying experimental design as needed, etc. And the most important part is the Independent Project.
For the independent project portion of the lab, the course has to have killer TAs – the first-year grad students usually cannot do it well. But look at what some of my former students did (pdf – some figures are omitted for space)! Or how about this independent project? Or this one (scroll down to the bottom to see the last two figures)?
Years later, I sometimes bump into my old students and they do not really remember their dissections, or in-lab experiments, but they all remember their projects and feel proud of what they did, and unanimously state that this was their very best college experience! If the news spreads, more students would rush to sign up for those labs and not expect in advance that they are a waste of their valuable time!
Most of the commenters on other blogs describe their experiences with physics labs. Perhaps they really are as bad as they say. Perhaps that is due to the expense of the needed equipment (it is so much cheaper to get a bunch of crayfish and cockroachees and some basic lab equipment for a bio lab). But my experience with various biology labs that I have TAd or taught, or my friends TAd, was mostly quite positive. The four core courses and a few upper-level courses have labs and they are all designed by dedicated teachers, they teach both thinking and technique, both creativity and recipe-following. I feel they are a necessary and important part of the transition from broad liberal education towards becoming an expert and a professional in one’s field.
Update: Laelaps hates his labs, while Jenna appears to love hers. Angie enjoys hers as well.
Update 2: J-Smith pens another anti-lab post, and Sandra Porter explains labs in the context of multiple learning styles.
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9 responses to “Science Labs

  1. Thanks for posting this, as I certainly have been fed up with my overall college experience lately. Beyond the feeling that I’m not really learning anything (I get a lot more out of the science books and articles I read on my own time than anything in class), the biology lab I attend every week is absolutely horrible. Rather than using the lab to reinforce the lecture, what we’re doing in lab has little or nothing to do with the rest of the course, and it follows a really terrible format. The average lab goes like this;
    -Quiz on the lab you’re about to do
    -1/2 hour ppt presentation of what’s in the lab
    -The lab itself (typically just “Look at the structure under the microscope, sketch it”)
    -“Putting it all together” questions that are a rehash of the ppt introduction.
    The course also seems a bit biased towards would-be medical students, and while the course claims to take an evolutionary perspective any and all discussion of evolution is saved for the last few classes. Indeed, as far as my own experience, everything seems to be about passing the tests to get a grade rather than learn anything to become a professional. I hope it is better elsewhere, but I sometimes feel like I would rather keep my 12,000 dollars per year and continue learning on my own.

  2. Have you read Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table”?
    A wonderful, wonderful book. That reminds me, I must get more of Levi’s writing.
    And thanks for the input on the “lab courses” discussion, Bora. Although I weighed in on Steve’s site on the pro-practical side, I do think that many lab classes are ill-designed and the science education system as a whole is in need of an overhaul. I do not have much in the way of practical suggestions but I am following the discussion with much interest.

  3. Sounds familiar, Brian. One of my plant morphology courses fit the criteria you describe. It totally destroyed an enjoyable topic.

  4. Excellent post. I envy you your education.
    Physics labs should not be part of the non-major’s curriculum. The idea of “breadth” in education is a waste of resources and student’s time if done as lip service rather than with a corresponding intention for a modicum of depth…sounds like that is what distinguishes your education from what Americans have bought with their tax dollar.
    My son is graduating with a BS in biochem and got into all but one of the graduate programs he applied to…he is now spending, as a senior, fairly extensive amounts of time in his advisor’s lab. He has already experienced the dead-end project and the differences in pace between lab work of people who know all the supporting chemistry and people who have to requisition and wait for every other reagent they use. I think he is lucky to have gone to a rather small school where quality time with people who really know their way around the lab is available. His academic performance was a listless mess before he started taking lab courses but I can’t infer cause there. Your point about the “killer TA” is definitely confirmed by our experience.

  5. I really enjoyed your post. As a high school science teacher (in America) – and after reading your description of the difference between 1-12 education in America and Europe – I agree with you that the question of the usefulness of labs is, definitely, an American problem.
    In high school, at least, however, they are anything but a waste of time. Labs in high school science courses are likely to be the only experiences that students will remember (rather than the conceptual content of the classes) , and are well worth doing, if only so that students graduate having positive associations with the study of science, leading to them possibly choosing to pursue courses of study in the sciences in college.

  6. Just had a chat with my junior molecular geneticist…he says the freshman chem lab was a joke but you simply can not talk about biochemistry…you do biochemistry and much of what you learn about the myriad techniques, PCR, recombinant dna techniques etc are only learned well if practiced. He says his advanced labs were generally great but did depend on the teacher.

  7. My only Biochemistry lab was in vet school in 1984 – it was a glorified chemistry lab, i.e., we never ran a single gel! It was test-tubes and titrations and solutions changing colors. No equipment more expensive than a pH-meter. Blargh!

  8. I TA’d introductory geology labs at two schools and noted a significant difference. Geology is often considered the “easy” science people take to fulfill the science requirement. One school, however, offered “Natural Science” for the hard core unprepared students. This course included material that should have been learned by 5th grade. Introductory geology at this school was attended by more non-geology majors than by geology majors. The second school offered one version of introductory geology for geology majors (equivalent to introductory geology at the first school) and a version for non-geology majors. The version for non-majors struck me as a watered-down, high-school level course, of little or no benefit.
    Over time I’ve been amazed at what some people did not learn in public school–stuff that I remember being presented in 5th grade or high school at the latest. A geology graduate that never had trigonometry? How could that be? In part I think it’s because students are often tempted to selected the lowest level courses (so they have to work less hard to pass) even though higher level, more interesting courses are offered (but they may require more studying, less partying).

  9. Christine Robbins

    I took Biology and Chemistry in High school. I am a business major. Why not teach me something that I will actually use in College? I work in Human Resources, why not let me take a course while studying business something related to HR? I am not going to remember the elements, or dissecting a frog (that I already did in 8th grade). For returning adults who have careers, but want the degree, please, skip the useless chemistry and biology and give me something I will actually USE!!!!!!!!!