Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lab improvisation

I will start a Microbiology course in 2 weeks at a college I have not taught before. I was hired the week before Christmas to replace the current instructor, who had to travel somewhere unexpectedly. As before any new assignment, I am a bit nervous but not too much, as I have taught Micro for several years. My main concern is the lab.
I have been thinking of the demands placed on adjunct instructors teaching labs. When I was a researcher it took usually a while to set up techniques, troubleshoot them, do the quality control, figure out the best reagents, and get comfortable enough with them. If by any chance I had to run my technique somewhere else I would take with me as many of my supplies as possible- too many important experiments had failed due to a different brand of paraformaldehyde, the recipe of PBS, or some other minor detail. 
So it is kind of interesting that lab adjuncts are expected to step in a completely foreign lab and make it work from day 1. A competent and organized lab tech makes all the difference, and I have worked with some of them: they run the lab with iron fist and high standards, they have a system and great quality control, and if something goes wrong they will explore what happened. Then I have had some sloppy ones, who did not order reagents in time or contaminated the cultures, leaving me trying to explain the students why their supposed cocci look like rods. 
At the end of the day it is mainly about experience and flexibility. I have run techniques in different ways so I guess I can learn a new one of necessary. If I need to handle an instrument or a tool I have no seen before, I guess I will wing it somehow. My first class is the first day of class in the there will be no chance for me to visit anybody else's lab. I will just have to pick everybody's brain during the department meeting and try to ask all the questions beforehand. 
There was a time when I was not as keen on teaching  labs as now. Coming from a research background, those school labs seemed simplistic and easy. However, they are often students' first or only experience of using the scientific method. I know that there are colleges where students do not follow lab manuals but do inquiry based science. But most still use step-by-step lab manuals where students try to confirm the expected results. I try to tell my students that there are no "good" or "bad" results: there are results and if they are solid we go from there to the next experiment. But it is not that easy.
Science as such requires discipline. It takes training for safety measures to become part of one's behavior, for the mind to acquire the sense of experimental design, to truly understand the thinking process when formulating a hypothesis and then testing it in a way that will yield a (hopefully) unequivocal answer. And most students care more about their grades (in the labs usually a combination of reports, assignments, and quizzes) than going deep. As I prepare my lesson plan I know I will dedicate more time to the lab, from safety to analysis. 
So it is a challenge...and especially when trying to do it in a lab where I don't know yet what is in each drawer :)


  1. You will do just fine !
    Good Luck

  2. Thank you, Tina :) Am emailing back and forth with the lab tech as we speak...feels better now!