Steve Gimbel at Philosopher’s Playground is calling for the abolition of lab classes:>p>
As an undergrad I majored in both philosophy and physics and I have a confession my former physics profs will surely not like — everything 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.
I found this link via Janet, who has her own thoughts on this subject.
As you might expect, I’m not wildly enthusiastic about this argument. In fact, I would say that you could make a functionally identical argument in favor of abolishing lecture classes. In my view, there are two sorts of edcuational experiences in the physical sciences: there are lab classes in which you directly engage with the principles of the physical world and then there are lecture classes in which students struggle to stay awake as a professor mumbles and fumbles his way through a series of proofs and arcane formulae that are only vaguely connected to any physical process.
“That’s not fair,” you protest, “Not all lecture classes are that incompetently done.” And that’s exactly the point– Gimbel’s argument isn’t an argument for getting rid of lab classes per se, it’s an argument for getting rid of badly designed lab classes.
Of course, this argtument then dissolves into a discussion of whether well-designed lab classes exist in the wild. Lots of people assert that they don’t, or that they’re so vanishingly rare that they might as well not exist. Personally, I can say that I probably wouldn’t be a physicist if it hadn’t been for labs– hands-on work with real physical phenomena is what I really enjoy, much more than theory. And the labs I had as an undergraduate were, in my opinion, very well done.
The problem is that doing labs well requires people to actually care about the labs– which means putting in the resources and the effort needed to make them work well. I had good experiences with my undergraduate labs because I was in a small department at a wealthy liberal arts college. We had equipment that worked, the labs were taught by the same professors doing the classes, and the labs were designed to really teach something about the physics and the equipment involved.
I didn’t TA any classes at Maryland when I was there, but based on the graduate laboratory class I had to take, I can easily imagine the experience being a good deal less pleasant. The graduate lab was stocked with equipment that nobody else wanted– at the start of the semester, the lab manager noted that they had recently upgraded all the computers to have 10 MB hard drives. This was in 1994, and even then, nobody was making 10 MB hard drives any more– they had scavenged them from other computers. That class was a miserable experience, because making it better wasn’t a high priority for anyone.
If you have to deal with lab sections taught by disgruntled grad students, using broken equipment and cookbook procedures that don’t engage with the material, then, yeah, you’re not going to enjoy lab classes. But that’s the same as saying that when you have to deal with professors with thick accents and bad handwriting working off thirty-year-old lecture notes, you’re not going to enjoy lecture classes. Both of those are arguments against bad implementation of good ideas.
Labs can be done well, and there’s a fair amount of pedagogical reasearch out there showing that students learn the essential concepts better through direct exploration than through lecture alone or through cookbook labs. There are people out there who have put a great deal of work into showing how to teach effective lab classes– look at things like the Workshop Physics program at Dickinson College, or some of the studio-style classes that are taught at other institutions. There are thriving Physics Education Research programs at lots of universities, and one of the things they study is how to make effective use of laboratory exercises.
Most undergraduate physics labs are done poorly for the same reason that most undergraduate physics classes are done poorly: educating undergraduates is not a high priority at most large research universities. Labs can be done well, but unless they’re funded and rewarded appropriately, they won’t be.
(There are a number of other points in Gimble’s post that I haven’t addressed here. I’ll take those up in another post.)