What (not) to do in the lab.

I will remember which sample of micro algae went in which epindorf micro-tube.

This list is a compilation of my own, and other researchers “learning experiences.” I have been thinking a lot about science education. I guess I’m always thinking about science education since I am a biology teacher, and I am in the midst of an amazing summer research experience in Australia. My current thoughts on learning center around an atmosphere where failure is a part of the learning process that is not feared, but celebrated.

I’m not speaking of failure in the sense of the heartless weed out classes many of us have experienced in college. The goal is not to keep overly optimistic idealist out of med school by failing them in organic chemistry. I also don’t want to praise every little achievement and call a failure a success.

Our culture is a little slap happy on praise and recognition. Many of my friends post excited updates about the status of their child’s potty training. Congrats he pooped, but I don’t need to know about it. Many schools have pre-school, kindergarten, first grade, etc. etc.  graduations some with caps and gowns and pomp and circumstance. Or science fairs, sporting events, or contest in which everyone is a winner.

If learning is taking place, that is motivating. No ribbons, celebrations, pomp or circumstance. Learning builds esteem, confidence, and character. While in the lab I am reading standard operating procedures, scholarly articles, and listening to amazing researchers and students explain how to perform laboratory tasks, but this alone is not learning. I don’t truly learn until I try, and fail, and do it again and eventually succeed. Sometimes I succeed by being more careful, sometimes I find a better way of doing it, and other times I just re-read the directions, but the act of trying, failing, and working through projects truly embeds procedure and knowledge in my brain.

The labels on my caps rubbed off when I vortex the falcon tube. Oooopppsss.

So here is my short list. What (not) to do in the lab.

  1. Label your experiment with non-permanent marker. Your lab technique is so good you basically don’t need labels.
  2. Perform each experiment with only one trial. You are a brilliant scientist and it will probably turn out just as you expected. If someone can’t replicate your experiment it is because they are not as brilliant as you are.
  3. See how fast you can complete the experiment. Speed = intelligence. If you are good you will not make errors no matter how fast you rush.
  4. Personal protective clothing is overly precautionary. Grab things out of the drying oven without hand protection, its not really that hot.
  5. A fridge is a fridge. That said leave your lunch wherever it can be kept cold, put it in the ice machine, the culture fridge. The chemical freezer. Your first priority is to have a fresh cold lunch.
  6. Assume you will remember everything you did in the lab. A lab notebook is something your biology teacher makes you do and is of no value. You will remember everything perfectly.

When I asked others in my lab they told me to watch this video.

Zheng Lab – Bad Project (Lady Gaga parody)

How can science educators make learning more engaging? How can classes operate  with ample opportunity for engagement, and where failure is accepted as part of the learning process and not feared.

(ps please refrain from commenting with the following terms: inquiry, differentiated instruction, flipped classroom, insert edu-jargon here.)

4 Responses to “What (not) to do in the lab.”
  1. Mr. Chopp says:

    For the record I am not caught in a bad project.

  2. Abhay Goel says:

    I have to admit I started to read this only because it was tagged with “Lady Gaga Parody”

    I’m glad you posted this. As an 11th grader, it’s almost required that I do most of the things in the list above (except perhaps use a fridge as a fridge), but now I know I will be joking about doing these things for many years to come.

    On a more serious note, I found myself agreeing with your opening paragraphs. From the youngest of ages, I find that children see school on the same level as chores. If they do their chores, they are rewarded: that is their only motivation. Unfortunately, very few find learning a good enough incentive for learning.

    -Abhay Goel

    (p.s. I hope I didn’t stray too close to your request for no “edu-jargon”)

    • Mr. Chopp says:

      Abhay, Thanks for the great comment. no edu-jargon so thanks for that too! I would love to continue the dialog throughout the year honestly if what you are doing is busy work, or is satisfying and stimulating you with a sense of accomplishment. Not everything will but the sooner you make the shift to self motivated learner, and not externally motivated by grades, praise, or pressure from parents the more satisfying your educational experience will be and the more successful you will be in transition to college, and beyond.

      I’m looking forward to a great year.

      Mr. Chopp

  3. Helena Mills says:

    First of all, I find this video very entertaining. Also, I agree with Abhay and his comment about school being viewed as a chore. I remember in middle school they would give out awards called classy deeds for exceptional actions and I received one from the librarian simply for using my study hour wisely instead of goofing off.

    Helena Mills

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