Steve Gimbel has a provocative post that suggests the costs of undergraduate lab classes may outweigh the benefits. Quoth Steve:
[E]verything I know about physics, I learned from my theory classes. You see, science classes come in two flavors. There are theory classes where a prof stands in front of the room and lectures and then there are lab classes where for many hours, students walk in ill-prepared and tried to figure out which one of these things we’ve never seen before is a potentiometer, fumble their way through procedures that yield results that are not even close to what they were led to expect, and then plug and chug their way through scientific and error calculations that frankly mean little to them. I will freely admit that all my experiences in lab classes were a waste of intellectual time and curricular space that could have much better utilized.
Now, I’m supposed to be writing a serious academic paper right now*, but Steve, as a fellow philosopher who is well aware of my misspent scientific, actually emailed me to see if I’d weigh in on the (as did another blogger coming at the issue from the perspective of a working scientist). And, coincidentally, just the night before Steve published his post, my better half and I were reminiscing about our undergraduate experiences with laboratory classes. So really, what choice do I have but to respond?
As I read it, Steve ‘s post is advancing roughly the following argument:
- Science pedagogy assumes that the theoretical content of a science course (what scientists in field X know about the phenomena they are concerned to study) is intimately linked to the methodology by which scientists in that field probe the phenomena. In Steve’s words, “You learn the theories, but how do you know they don’t really work, if you don’t test them? Science has two parts — observing phenomena and accounting for them, science education ought to cover both”.
- Actual lab courses, however, often amount to following a ready-formulated procedure, trying to get the equipment to work, arriving at results that don’t clearly demonstrate the concept or relationship they are intended to demonstrate, and following more recipes for computations that don’t connect to anything much like “understanding” in the student’s head.
- Since the undergraduate’s understanding of science seems more likely to come from a lecture course than a laboratory course (at least if the laboratory course is as characterized in #2), students might get a better understanding of science if they elected to take more science lecture classes.
- However, when science lecture courses require that students also take the corresponding lab course, the disincentive to take more than the minimum number of science classes is huge, because the lab course will chew up a whole afternoon (or more) of the academic week (when students might well be taking some other courses they want or need to take).**
- From the point of view of allocating faculty, the demand for a relatively small student-to-faculty ratio in lab sections means that a science course with a largish lecture and multiple lab sections can account for one science faculty member’s entire teaching load in a given term.
- This means, in turn, that the faculty in science departments are likely to have less opportunity to teach additional science offerings — electives, courses team-taught with faculty from other disciplines, etc. — that could broaden and deepen students’ understanding of and appreciation for science. Even if students could get over the tendency toward the minimum number of science classes described in #4, these potential additional science offerings aren’t made actual because of the staffing demands imposed by lab classes
- Therefore, requiring a lab class for the lion’s share of science lecture classes undermines the goal of getting more students an understanding and appreciation for science.
Now Steve is careful here to distinguish between what is needed for science students who are planning to become scientists and science students who are not:
Those who are being trained to go on in science do need training, they need to learn how to work in labs. But there is a difference between training and teaching and the overabundance of labs put the training aspect before the teaching aspect. Most students don’t need training, they simply want to be taught about science — and for most of them they are right, that is what they need… Students want to know about science and need to know about science, but are not learning about science and part of the reason is the idea that learning science means you have to be trained to do science.
On the one hand, I’m in complete agreement with Steve that the world would be a better place if more non-science majors*** took science courses for fun. Having at least a basic understanding for how science works strikes me as a crucial competency for an educated person in the 21st century, and curricular changes that increase the odds of developing this competency ought to be investigated. And it’s true (as I’ve noted before) that the handskills one develops in a lab are distinct from conceptual understanding — and, they’re distinct from being a competent observer and from being able to draw good judgments from data.
However, I think there’s something to the impulse to include laboratory experiences in science classes. The important thing science teachers hope to teach, after all, is not some particular pile of facts or some canonical set of models of their phenomena. Rather, they want to convey something about the methodology of science — here’s what we know about these systems and here’s how scientists came to know it. Given the kinds of information we can access in these systems, here are the kinds of questions we can answer, the kinds of accounts that seem reasonable (and those that we’ve ruled out), the sorts of problem-solving strategies that give us traction. Without that part of the story about science, students don’t really understand what scientists take to be distinctive about how they’re grappling with the world.
The big question, of course, is whether one must mess around with the actual systems to grasp these lessons about the methodology of science. A much easier question is whether undergraduate lab classes are a sure route to grasping such lessons: on the whole, many are not.
A good part of this can probably be laid at the feet of lab exercises that have more to do with following cookbook protocols than thinking. And, as I’ve speculated before, the cookbook protocols may seem like a necessary evil when you only get four or five hours a week in the lab, for however many weeks there are in the academic term, to transmit all the canonical experiments for a particular level of study of a particular scientific discipline. The kind of trial-and-error exploration involved in thinking up your own approach to a scientific problem could well take more time, and the sheer time investment is already one of the things that may be driving students away from taking more science courses.
Before I go on, let me share some details of my chat with my better half about our undergraduate laboratory experiences. At the science and engineering oriented institution where my better half was an undergraduate, lecture courses and lab courses were wholly distinct, which is to say you could take all manner of science lecture courses without ever setting foot in the lab. (This came up when my better half copped to never having taken a physics lab, despite having taken a bunch of physics lecture courses.) I, on the other hand, attended a small liberal arts college where one not only had to take the corresponding lab course for nearly all the science lecture courses offered**** but one also received precisely the same number of credits for taking the lecture and lab portions of the course as one would have received for taking a much less time-intensive course such as a philosophy seminar.
Perhaps paradoxically, this means liberal artsy me may have logged more hours in lab courses of various sorts than my techy better half. This wasn’t because I thought from the start that I was going to be a scientist.***** And, though some of the red ink from my old lab notebooks indicates that my lab technique struck my professors as “better than most”, I can tell you that at least at the introductory and intermediate levels of study, there was next to no correlation between my grasp of the conceptual subject matter of a science course and my ability to get the stupid lab experiments to work, let alone to grasp any additional understanding of the phenomena beyond “This sucker is a pain to control precisely!” I might well have been a physics major on the sheer elegance of theory, but the damned labs (which started at 7:00 PM, by the way) were a perfectly optimized blend of impossible to conduct and unlikely to convey new insights. To be honest, my first couple chemistry labs weren’t much better (and I still bear a grudge against the inventor of the bomb calorimeter that makes me thankful that I’m neither a violent person nor armed, lest I encounter that inventor or his progeny).
If my recollections are to be trusted, it is fair to say that I became a science major despite these early college laboratory experiences rather than because of them.
However, a funny thing happened around my junior year: my labs (in chemistry and biology both) started to be engaging.
How they got to be engaging was by presenting us with laboratory problems for which we needed to work out our own strategies, protocols, follow-ups and interpretations — in other words, we had moved away from cookbook land. Also, the experiments were no longer cover-the-whole-thing-in-one-lab-session procedures, but developed into ongoing experiments that we had time to mull over, adjust (based on how things had gone the last time), and digest. In short, what we were doing in our lab classes was suddenly a lot more like “real” science.
Removing the insane time pressure and shifting the terms of our success to how well we thought as we planned our experiments (rather than on whether we were skilled enough technicians driving someone else’s protocol) surely made the labs more fun to do, and I definitely learned more about the process from these labs than I ever did from my intro labs. I couldn’t have gone right to these relatively advanced labs, however, without a bunch of the techniques I learned in the detestable intro labs — such techniques were like a necessary vocabulary for framing the problems we were asked to solve in the “fun” labs and conceiving of reasonable plans of attack. If I had been at a school where the lab component of science courses is optional, the nature of the entry-level labs might well have discouraged me from electing to take the lab components of these courses where the labs turned out to be really engaging. (No one had warned me that they would be really engaging, so it was a marvelous surprise.)
In some ways, then, I’m a beneficiary of the forced march through the science lab.
Still, if the point of a lab course is to convey more than specific techniques — if the point is to cultivate something like an understanding of how experiments can be used to build scientific knowledge, and a feel for what it’s like to engage in scientific problem-solving — rethinking the design of intro lab classes might be a very good thing. It’s good that this is starting to happen. But perhaps the real measure of success will be when the majority of students who don’t have to take lab courses enroll because they want to take them.
*The paper must be ready for submission by April 1. I’ve made significant progress on it, but there’s lots more to do. However, at the moment my brain is fried, so you get this post.
**Additional fees for lab courses can be another disincentive, especially for those of us with a tendency to break a lot of glassware.
***And science majors too, for that matter.
****The first time I actually encountered such a course was when I took a labless seminar on organometallic chemistry in my junior year. It was kind of weird.
*****I was pre-med for a spell. It passed.