Oh, to be free of biology lab

30 03 2007

There has been quite a lively discussion going on lately (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for some of the highlights) over science labs for undergraduates, and being that I’m an undergrad myself (and have 2-3 lab courses every semester) I thought I would weigh in on the subject.

First, I should be honest and say that I’m none too happy with my undergraduate education up to this date. There have been some high points and some low, but especially since I started reading more scientific books and papers on my own, I don’t feel like I’m getting much from any of my classes. It may sound arrogant, but half the time I feel I could teach some classes better than my professors (becoming that insufferable know-it-all everyone hates in the process), and at this point college has merely become the institutional meat-grinder that I have to go through if I want to get my degree and some amount of respect. Darwin had publish a massive work on barnacles that took 8 years, I have to spend 8 years avoiding the BS; means to an end as far as some amount of academic respect.

Before I go off on my rant, I have had some positive experiences with lab work. Although my actual paleontology lab involved little more than looking at fossils and taking notes, the class did take a trip to the Inversand marl pit in southern New Jersey, where I was able to collect some bone material (there’s too little to ascertain from what, but likely a marine reptile) including a crocodile scute and mosasaur vertebrae. Certainly, neither was a big scientific acheivement but I felt utterly exhilarated uncovering part of an animal that lived over 65 million years ago right around where I was standing (the area was about 100 feet underwater during the end-Cretaceous). Another such positive experience occurred last summer when I spent one week in Stokes State Forest and another in Barnegat Bay, learning techniques for birding, forestry, etc. While I have to say I wasn’t particularly excited about the forestry/botany aspects of the first week, it felt good to actually be outside practicing methods used to determine various aspects of ecology rather than sitting in lecture.

If I had any other good labs experiences, however, I have long since forgotten them. Most labs I have taken have been horribly constructed and leave the student with little new information, certainly not reinforcing the concepts learned in lecture. Indeed, for some classes “Lab” merely means “video time,” where ancient National Geographic programs are shown without further discussion or comment. Others, however, involve monitored viewing/experience with materials, such is my current biology 102 lab. Each lab starts off with a quiz and .ppt presentation, followed by viewing of ancient Turtox-brand slides and then a final wrap-up where each group is assigned a question. The past week has been an exception being that we’ve been dissecting a fetal pig, but it seems more about just being able to name the anatomy than understanding about how the systems work in the organism. Indeed, often it feels like the course is designed with future med-students in mind, important aspects of biology like behavior, evolution, and ecology getting little mention or being pushed to the end of the semester.

Part of the problem with biology courses, and labs specifically, is that lack of enthusiasm shown by instructors. What grad student really wants to get up early and set up 20 microscopes with slides and herd undergraduates for 3 hours? I have yet to be through the system myself, but from what I understand if you cannot pay for grad school on your own, you need to get a GA or TA-ship, meaning if you can’t get a grant and you can’t pay on your own, you have to be a TA. I don’t want to paint all TA’s with too wide a brush (maybe it’s just Rutgers) but most of the ones I have encountered aren’t particularly happy about their situation and do little to inspire undergrads. Indeed, there are professors as well that seem like they would much rather be doing their own research than teaching an introductory course, and this apathy (and even contempt) comes across quite clearly.

Like I said, I don’t want to say that all labs are worthless or that every college is like mine, but as far as my own experience, I feel that I’m merely paying for my degree in yearly installments. There’s little that I’ve learned through my classes that I actually remember, and whenever I’ve shown an interest in a particular field or a desire to get involved, I’ve been brushed aside or looked down upon. When I switched my major to ecology & evolution, my adviser told me she didn’t think I could do it, and I’ve magically been reassigned to someone else (although it’s probably for the better). I’m tired of sitting in cramped lecture halls and listening to dispassionate professors stumble through lessons, I actually want to LEARN something and become a professional, but it doesn’t seem like I can do so at college. While gaining a “well-rounded” education is important, I think things are made more difficult on students by having to balance biology, chemistry, physics, math, history, etc. all in the same semester through much of their undergraduate work; if the classes had a common theme, were integrated, or even fed into each other, I think the acquiring and retention of information would be much greater, but I know that I have chosen my classes poorly in the past and now am stuck playing “clean up” in order to get my degree in the next year.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make a good scientist at all, not for lack of interest or passion, but because I simply can’t stand the Ivory Tower of academia. I would absolutely love to go to Africa and study ecology and evolution there, but no one will take me seriously or even support me without having gone through the collegiate initiation process first, even though it has really done little to spur my intellectual development. There must be a better way.



One response

2 04 2007

I know what you mean; the only labs I took where I was actually practicing skills, it seems, was my Chemistry 101 class (where we often did things like determine the composition of unknown samples). And even then, often there was no way with the equipment we had to get any kind of actual accurate or precise answer (in fact, sometimes the TA could tell when people were cheating because their answers were TOO right!) …

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