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 There are definite problems with outdated facilities and equipment, and I certainly have come across professors who make it quite clear that labs are run on a very small budget.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.