Labs vs. “Real” Courses

One final Steve Gimbel note. Toward the end of his anti-lab post, he writes:

If you want to see a science professor get angry, just tell them that they teach all those labs to get out of teaching real courses. You’ll see faces get flush, veins pop out of heads and necks, and receive a high decibel screed about not understanding how time intensive it is to prepare labs and grade lab reports. They are incredibly touchy about this issue. Maybe it’s because it’s true, maybe it isn’t; but either way, it does mean that there are fewer science classes taught.

This is, I hope, the dumbest thing I’ll read today.

Really, this makes about as much sense as going up to a philosophy professor and saying “I know you guys teach all those free-form seminar/ discussion classes just because you’re too lazy to write detailed lectures.” I’d expect a lot of spluttering and yelling there, too, and not because there was any truth to the comment, but because it’s an ignorant and obnoxious thing to say.

The fact that he thinks this makes a point of some sort makes me dramatically less interested in anything he has to say about the structure of science curricula.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    March 29, 2007

    The first time one hires an Honors graduate who cannot handle a gas tank (attaching an oxygen regulator is particularly sweet), perform a distillation, or honcho a vac line… education echoes. There’s something to be said for hiring a high school dropout and adding six months of vocational training. There won’t be much in that head, but all of it added will be correct and functional. Augment as needed.

    Don’t have the candidate attempt to disconnect an oxygen regulator. Obviously.

  2. #2 adam
    March 29, 2007

    Chad, I was a dual physics/philosophy major and my own experience (so, limited and anecdotal) would suggest that regardless of why free-form discussions might be pursued, they certainly are easier than preparing a lecture.

  3. #3 SteveG
    March 29, 2007

    Naive, dumb, and obnoxious…boy, say something about my mother and it would almost be like we’re married.

    The point here is that this conversation occurs in a political context. Anyone who has ever talked about curricular matters and even brought up lab requirements knows the storm that is headed his/her way. Questions about lab classes are intimately tied up with issues of workload, to deny that is to simply be a complete pollyanna. Now maybe it is true that lab classes are lighter, maybe it isn’t. As someone who doesn’t teach lab sections (although I’ve always wanted one for my ethics class), it is an empirical question I don’t know the answer to. But one of the reasons it doesn’t get a wider discussion is the politics around it.

    Are philosophy seminars easier to prepare than lectures? Depends on the seminar. A lot of lecture courses are at the intro level and stuff that is standard enough that it requires little prep time to set up and go over the relevant arguments that you know by heart. Seminars tend to be on tougher material that you haven’t worked over as frequently and sometimes take more prep work.

    If you think your philosophers are not doing their share of the curricular work where you are, then that ought to be something to discuss with your peers and administrators. If you are insinuating that it is the case with me personally, that’s fine, it’s an empirical question. Feel free to contact any of my colleagues here and ask. The physicists know me quite well. Ask them.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2007

    I found it MUCH harder to teach Astronomy Lab to 12 college students than to teach Intro Astronomy (lecture) to 100 students.

    Observing her in action, though, I believe that my wife is a much better college Physics Lab teacher than I, as I’ve observed when I guest lectured in her Physics class.

    It might, to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, be easier to BADLY teach a lab than a lecture course. Or, in his case, perhaps to badly take a lab course.

    Hope you’re feeling better today, Chad.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    March 29, 2007

    The point here is that this conversation occurs in a political context. Anyone who has ever talked about curricular matters and even brought up lab requirements knows the storm that is headed his/her way. Questions about lab classes are intimately tied up with issues of workload, to deny that is to simply be a complete pollyanna. Now maybe it is true that lab classes are lighter, maybe it isn’t. As someone who doesn’t teach lab sections (although I’ve always wanted one for my ethics class), it is an empirical question I don’t know the answer to. But one of the reasons it doesn’t get a wider discussion is the politics around it.

    It’s not “political,” it’s insulting. Particularly when phrased the way that you put it in the original post, as if science faculty were somehow using labs to dodge “real” class teaching.

    As someone who actually does teach labs, I can tell you that they’re a great deal of work. Not only is there time spent in the lab itself (which is generally almost equal to the total weekly lecture time), and time spent marking lab reports, but there’s time spent finding the equipment, setting it all up, making sure it actually works, etc. We get teaching credit for labs that’s equal to half a lecture class, and we’re probably getting shorted on that.

    I don’t teach discussion classes, so I don’t really know how much work goes into preparing a discussion class. My limited experience with the form (leading a book discussion during orientation a few years ago) suggests that it’s a good deal of work, but I really don’t have the experience to say. Accordingly, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to my colleagues who do teach discussion classes, when they say that it’s the same as a lecture class, without making snide insinuations that they’re getting off easy.

  6. #6 Carmelo Lisciotto
    March 29, 2007

    It is sometimes said that astronomy is so exciting that it teaches itself. But that’s not true. You will have to call on your full range of professional skills to teach it effectively. Much is known about effective teaching and learning of astronomy, but much of it is hidden away in education research journals, not widely accessible to teachers.

    Carmelo Lisciotto

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2007

    To slightly step away from from my prior subjective evaluation: “I found it MUCH harder to teach Astronomy Lab to 12 college students than to teach Intro Astronomy (lecture) to 100 students”, which seems supported by Carmelo Lisciotto, I’ll try an appeal to journal publication.

    If lecture classes are so hard, why do they rarely lead to published papers? Conversely, if lab courses are so “easy” then whey do they sometimes lead to published papers? Again, I’ll cite my wife’s professorial experience. From many hours in the Physics lab, above and beyond the ones she was paid for, I hasten to add, she and her lab technician devised a novel but inexpensive apparatus, perfected, and used it to teach something already in the curriculum. This was so difficult, yet so rewarding, that they published as:

    “Demonstration of Beats with a Double-Driven String”

    The Physics Teacher — November 2004 — Volume 42, Issue 8, p. 462

    Christine Carmichael and
    Steven Smith
    Woodbury University, Burbank, CA

    This unique demonstration is a novel way of presenting the concept of constructive and destructive interference and the resulting beat notes. The visual impact reinforces the auditory variation in intensity and is more obvious. ©2004 American Association of Physics Teachers

    Google the title to get the web page for links to the HTML, PDF, and other versions.

    My point, to iterate: if Physics Lab is so easy, why does the world’s leading journal about college Physics teaching bother to publish articles on Lab courses?

    The witness may now step down. I rest my case, Your Honor.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2007

    To slightly step away from from my prior subjective evaluation: “I found it MUCH harder to teach Astronomy Lab to 12 college students than to teach Intro Astronomy (lecture) to 100 students”, which seems supported by Carmelo Lisciotto, I’ll try an appeal to journal publication.

    If lecture classes are so hard, why do they rarely lead to published papers? Conversely, if lab courses are so “easy” then whey do they sometimes lead to published papers? Again, I’ll cite my wife’s professorial experience. From many hours in the Physics lab, above and beyond the ones she was paid for, I hasten to add, she and her lab technician devised a novel but inexpensive apparatus, perfected, and used it to teach something already in the curriculum. This was so difficult, yet so rewarding, that they published as:

    “Demonstration of Beats with a Double-Driven String”

    The Physics Teacher — November 2004 — Volume 42, Issue 8, p. 462

    Christine Carmichael and
    Steven Smith
    Woodbury University, Burbank, CA

    This unique demonstration is a novel way of presenting the concept of constructive and destructive interference and the resulting beat notes. The visual impact reinforces the auditory variation in intensity and is more obvious. ©2004 American Association of Physics Teachers

    Google the title to get the web page for links to the HTML, PDF, and other versions.

    My point, to iterate: if Physics Lab is so easy, why does the world’s leading journal about college Physics teaching bother to publish articles on Lab courses?

    The witness may now step down. I rest my case, Your Honor.

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2007

    Sorry about the double posting. It took roughly 6 tries to get the form to produce a preview, and half a dozen times to try to get that to post, each time with about a minute of no visible results. I’d originally had the URL in question, and then deleted it and tried again, twice. SEED’s server, or my connection? Don’t know. Sorry.

  10. #10 Adam
    March 30, 2007

    When I was teaching physics ‘A’ Level in the UK, I supervised quite a lot of practical lessons (‘practical’ being the same thing as ‘lab’ in this discussion). I guess that the level would at least be comparable to the early lab courses that a physics undergraduate would take at a US university, because the starting ‘A’ Level physics student in the UK has already had a fair amount of physics, because it is compulsory from age 5 to 16 (and by the time they finished their ‘A’ Level back then, they had done an additional 2 years of physics, taking about a third of their total study time).

    There was a clear difference between some of the courses on offer. The traditional physics course (that I had taken myself at ‘A’ Level) had a practical component that was often somewhat tedious and was, perhaps uncoincidentally, focussed on training. Anyone that has done the Lee’s Disk experiment will know what I’m talking about.

    The course that I mostly taught, however, was Nuffield ‘A’ Level physics, and the practical aspects of the course were cleverly thought out and integrated into the course. A typical lesson would have practical and theoretical components using a variety of educational techniques. Because the students were still, legally speaking, minors, you had to be somewhat careful with radioactive sources, lasers, anything poisonous, or high-voltage electrical supplies (although they were allowed to use all of these things, you couldn’t rely on their common-sense and expect to avoid legal jeopardy if anything went wrong). They had to do a practical investigative/research project, which really did sort out the good from the bad; additionally, there was no real distinction between students who were ‘good at theory’ and ‘good at practical’ as the good students were good at both and the bad students generally bad at both, for all that there is this popular image of a distinction at some fundamental, natural ability, level.

    The key thing about the practical aspect, I think, was that the activities were very well thought-out in the first place. It was hell on the lab tech if they had been used to the traditional practical physics, the “put the experiment back in its tray and bring it out again next year with a brief prayer that it still works” approach and a good lab tech still had a lot of stuff to do (in part because there were just so many practical activities). The course as a whole was significantly better than any of the others I ever saw, although its replacement, the IOP’s ‘Advancing Physics’ course, takes much of what was good about the old Nuffield Course and builds on it pretty well.

    The success of the course at the school at which I taught required a great deal of organisation and ability to secure funds for the often expensive equipment (many schools don’t have enough oscilloscopes for a class to have one per pair of students, for example) but I had a Head of Department who was, so far as I can tell, the best teacher, of any subject, on the planet; that was very helpful to have as an example but also, he had the whole thing running on oiled wheels long before the time that I was hired.

    Our students did very well (most of the credit for this does belong to the HoD, for my money), and quite a lot did go on to do more physics (at Cambridge, Imperial College, Oxford, Bristol and other good universities). Some of them, met for beers after they left, complained that the lab courses were bad compared to the ones that we had taught (again, the HoD set this all up; we just executed it. I’m not attempting to claim credit here on this internerd of Gore’s).

    ‘Training’ was generally got while doing something that had educational value in-and-of-itself. Sure, some would have done equally well in the physics learning the whole thing on paper, so long as they never had to go near a piece of equipment, but for many there was a real benefit, in terms of understanding the physics theory, from undertaking the practical work.

    I don’t have any sympathy for the snooty ‘theory is for the smart physicists’ line (although my PhD is in theoretical Quantum Mechanics and I guess that I could benefit from any growth in that opinion) that you sometimes hear, although I also have no sympathy for experimentalists that whine that they don’t get enough attention*. Most physicists are tied to experimental work in one way or another and probably an even larger proportion of the money goes in that direction; that’s not because theorists are just too hard to find because there aren’t that many sexy and clever people around, it’s because physics is a science and if anything demarcates sciences and non-science, it’s attempting to falsify predictions, an endeavour which requires practical activity.

    *I am low on sympathy for whining. Fix the problem or do something else, but “it’s just not fair” doesn’t work once you hit about 5 years old.

  11. #11 Adam
    March 30, 2007

    For anyone interested in the utter dullness of the Lee’s Disk activity, to determine thermal conductivity of a poor conductor, that I mentioned, here’s a link (it looks eerily like the sheet I was given when I did it all those years ago, close enough that I got a shiver of impending tedium):

    http://media.paisley.ac.uk/~davison/labpage/leedisk/leedisk.html

    It appears that it’s a university lab course there in Paisley; lucky students that, like me, got to do it at highschool as well would doubtless feel pretty sick at having to do it again.

    Another practical activity that was god-awful tedious, even using the new dedicated equipment, is the Millikan’s oil-drop experiment. Millikan must have had the patience of a saint (or else he made his grad students do it). Tragically, our Millikan’s experiment apparatus was retired once a student caught a 400V (albeit safely current-limited) shock into the eyeball.

    There has to be a balance between the training aspect, the amount of time taken to do the activity and the value added in terms of understanding the physics; some lab activities just don’t meet reasonable criteria for measuring those up against each other, I don’t think. That’s not a criticism of lab class, it’s a criticism of, as others have said, a bad lab class. Some may disagree on the two examples I’ve picked, of course, and maybe American students have different interests.

  12. #12 Martin Madsen
    March 30, 2007

    I love this thread.

    I am currently teaching:

    1) Lecture course for second semester intro physics (meets 3 hours/week)

    2) Lab for said course (meets 3 hours/week)

    3) Advanced lab (meets 3 hours/week)

    and 4) Discussion class (literature-based) (meets 3 hours/week).

    On an average week, I probably spend twice the time on the lecture part than I do on the lab courses. We get 1 credit teaching load for lecture and 0.5 for lab. I probably spend an equal amount of time preparing for the discussion class. So, IMNSHO, I’d say that at the basic level (1st year prof. speaking here), they all balance out ok for the teaching load. But that still doesn’t answer whether we *ought* to be teaching lousy lab courses…

  13. #13 adam
    March 30, 2007

    Martin, do you get to inflict Lee’s Disk or Millikan’s Oildrop Experiment on anyone?

    Lee’s Disk has my vote for all-time most tedious lab activity, although nearly anything involving ticker-tape would be close. Measuring the viscosity of air using a ping-pong ball pendulum wasn’t the most fun I ever had, either.

  14. #14 CET
    March 30, 2007

    Hmm . . . I thought the intent of his post was to ask if the time that science profs spend teaching labs to non-majors would be better spent doing something else. That is not (IMO – as someone who teaches chemistry labs to a variety of non-science majors) a trivial question.

    But in order to answer it, you must first ask: What is the rationale for teaching weekly lab sections to Arts/Humanities people?

    And that leads right back to the Big Question of science courses for A&H people: What do you want them to get out of the course and why?

  15. #15 CET
    March 30, 2007

    Err . . disregard last comment. I hadn’t read through the earlier posts on this topic.

  16. #16 Daniel Harper
    March 30, 2007

    But in order to answer it, you must first ask: What is the rationale for teaching weekly lab sections to Arts/Humanities people?

    You’ve just given me the excuse to chat a bit about a little idea of mine. I’m going to be brief, but hear me out: we’re basically playing “dress-up scientist” in these lab courses. By this I mean that students in a lab class are taking data (of whatever stripe), working with equipment, et cetera — i.e. all of the things that “real” scientists do, but in a controlled and hopefully safe way. This, I think, is one of the primary goals of lab classes in terms of what non-majors get out of them: they can actually _do_ some of the things (at least on a very basic level) that Real Live Scientists do on a daily basis.

    Even in terms of science majors taking these classes, I think the metaphor holds. Gaining experience working a microscope, an Erlenmeyer flask, or an oscilloscope is such an important part of working the lab that I’d say it’s at least as important as the actual practice with whatever scientific principle that’s being learned.

    I’m a bio major. Do I remember the pH in which yeast are most likely to perform glycolosis versus aerobic respiration? Not necessarily, and I wrote an A lab report on it. But I now know how to work a centrifuge….

  17. #17 Obloodyhell
    November 20, 2008

    Heh.

    =======================================================

    The newly selected Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences called the Chairman of the Physics department in to discuss the next year’s budget requests.
    “This budget is utterly unacceptable” complained the Dean. “You have here requests for millions of dollars of equipment. A hundred thousand for a scanning electron microscope. Another two hundred grand for a particle emitter and a cloud chamber. On and on, equipment costing, quite literally, millions!!” The Chairman looked embarassed, and started to reply, only to have the Dean cut him off… “The other departments have budgets a fraction of yours! Look here!” he tossed him a sheaf of papers, “The Chemistry department only wants beakers, flasks, and chemicals. And here!”, another sheaf. “The Mathematics department only asks for pencils and erasers! And look at this!” another sheaf came flying across the desk, “The Philosophy department. They don’t even need erasers!

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