Teaching Science To Undergraduates With Lab Courses

Undergraduate lab courses–as currently constituted–are worse than worthless, because they give a grossly misleading picture of what it is like to actually pursue a scientific question in the lab. They are built around little technical demonstrations with a preordained outcome, and they give students the impression that being a scientist is boring, routine, and mechanical, rather than exciting, novel, and creative.

At my institution, the undergraduate cellular and molecular biology program has actually instituted lab courses that are based on the students being supervised in genuine discovery-based research projects devised by program faculty and related to ongoing work in their research laboratories. These are excellent, but they are extraordinarily time- and resource-intensive in comparison to the prepackaged demonstrations that are the norm.

And more generally, undergraduate science curricula tend to be overly focused on facts and theories at the expense of providing insight into the process of generating scientific knowledge. Of course, the former is much drier and more boring than the latter.


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Ahhh. Reminds me of my undergrad physics labs. “Roll the cart in front of the sensor so the computer measures all the values. Divide value A from value B and check if it matches value C.” You could do the whole lab without knowing a thing.

  2. Lyra says

    I’m currently a TA for a biology lab course. If anyone has suggestions on how I can be a great teacher to these students, please let me knoooooooow. It’s my first time teaching, ever, and I feel rather . . . subpar. I know that it’s hard to avoid that you’re first time through, but . . . still.

  3. says


    Attitude is very important. Don’t come across as angry, stressed, or confused. Make an effort to learn names.

    Spend some time doing the lab yourself or watching experienced TAs, even if you did the same thing 4 years ago and you are currently busy as a graduate student. Learn where the backup supplies are located so you can calmly deal with anything that breaks.

    Learn the syllabus so any grading issues can be dealt with quickly and competently.

  4. says

    In [the dastardly!] Venezuela, students in a number of subjects (their education is free) are required to do a project that addresses a local community need. They consult with the community and the literature, and design their research to help to deal with the problem.

    I don’t think I could come up with a better model. There’s certainly no shortage of local issues that biology students could help to address in the US, and they would feel a real sense of contributing meaningfully.

  5. elisabeth says

    Yes. Learn their names. And if you can learn a little bit about their backgrounds you’ll be able to use that, at times, as a substrate to emphasize scientific and social interests. So that they have an opportunity to experience learning science or biology as as an integrative experience in time and community space.

  6. Brian Ogilvie says

    What I remember most from my college science labs (through intermediate mechanics and E&M, which is the point I jumped ship for history of science) was not so much the content as the skills that they taught, and in particular, the importance of precision. Measuring the speed of light and getting a value that was twice the real one, or recreating the Cavendish experiment and getting a ludicrous value for G, was humbling, especially for someone whose previous physics experience had been mostly mathematical.

    The other benefit, in one of my mechanics labs, was bouncing ideas off a Nobel laureate (James Cronin), who did come to the labs he supervised and seemed to enjoy helping feckless undergrads figure out the mysteries of rotational dynamics.

  7. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Meh. It really depends on the purpose of the lab. If you are trying to inspire citizens to take an interest in how things are discovered, discovery-based lab modules can work*. If you want to train students to solve real problems using the sceintific method, SC’s* suggestion makes sense. If you want students to understand the development of xylem in phloem in plant tissues….well, they juts have to look at a lot of cross sections of stems and roots in different plants.

    The problem isn’t so much with the approach as the attitude. Students want hands-on experience. What they need is brains-on experience. If they are engaged intellectually, what is on the lab bench in front of them is of little importance.

    [gripe] One of the greatest difficulties I find with lab courses is with voluntary engagement. Even with a completely fun discovery-based approach, students often want to complete whatever action they need to so they can get a check-mark and split. Maintining engagement requires effort and vigilance that is above-and-beyond what most USanian state schools are willing to fund. I for one, am against requiring graduate students to spend many extra hours outside of the teaching-laboratory preparing– it’s a shitty job environment and if they want to break in they need to kick ass in their own research. Further, I can’t do it myself. I am at a moderately sized University and we teach more than 15 sections of intro botany (~25 students per section) per week. I think that many professors try to design labs that are both informative and engaging, but these are wasted on students who refuse to engage the material, no matter how carefully prepared.[/gripe off]

    *Although, generally they require a higher level of committment from an instructor.
    **SC…Almost done with Mosquito Empires. Great book. I’m going to use it in a senior seminar.

  8. says

    Dude, undergraduate labs have changed a great deal since you were last in college. What your university is doing (inquiry based learning) is starting to become the norm in a lot of places. Interestingly this approach started first catching on not a big research universities but in science departments at small colleges. This is also becoming common practice in high-school science teaching too.

  9. says

    Nam is right, I was a guinea pig to inquiry based learning at my SLAC over ten years ago. We tried the old “labs” and then the “new” labs. The new way totally kicked the shit out of learning versus the old labs where you could guess the experimental values because they were that old and fucking Draconian.

  10. Donovan says

    I teach a micro-lab. I spent two semesters as the assistant before being handed the class in its entirety. This is my first semester, too.

    Since most of the stuff in our lab is broken, most of the few cultures we have are dying (I’m seriously thinking of doing my thesis on undergrad culture maintenance), and we have to share media making flasks with the chem lab next door that leaves nifty looking crystals of FSM knows what stuck to the bottoms, my lab has become a fantastic learning lab.

    Last week I had the students make various cultures that we would, today, stain and take a gander at. I showed up early, fired up the equipment, went to the incubator, and laughed. Not one broth culture grew. No staining. My PhD boss was in the lab doing some other stuff, she laughed, too, and we discussed possible reasons. She thinks my cultures finally kicked the bucket (noooooooooooo!!!!!! Mah BAY BEEEESSSSS!!!). I think the broth was contaminated by the aforementioned FSM knows what. So I made a side bet with her, set up some experiments, and started to work on the problem.

    But then, inspiration! This being an undergrad lab, I knew much could go wrong so left cushion in my semester schedule. I explained to the class what happened. I then listed some possible explanations for why it happened ranging from their fault to mine to nobody’s. Then I said it’s time for real science. They keep notebooks outlining each experiment, as is typical for a professional lab. I had them reread their previous experiment and see if anything might explain it, I broke out some new media, different media, different cultures, etc. I then told them they were free to use anything on my desk and any method they wished to find what happened. I then explained (the all important question) that full points would be awarded for demonstrating a clear and reasonable plan of attack, while extra points could be earned for the mid-term if they arrived at the correct answer.

    It’s not quite what happens in a real lab (20+ people working on a simple question of media/culture viability? Ha! We all wish). But it is very close to my experience interning at the USDA. I related these experiences while they were working and we had a fun time. I even had students admit they thought they might have killed their cultures with a hot loop. If we’re learning lab honesty and how to learn from the unexpected, I think undergrad mission accomplished.

    Now to win that six pack. I’m sure my little microbial children are still clinging to life, and hopefully the new plates I’m growing will improve my stock a little. What I wouldn’t give for one day in a real lab with the proper media making equipment. I could save all of my bacterial family.

  11. Xhebag says

    Your babies? There’s bacteria everywhere. Just go to the basement of your frats and scape the floors, should be some hardy little buggers all over the place.

  12. says

    I’m torn on this issue. If it’s an elective course, definitely go for the fun, interesting problem solving skills, but if it is a required core course, I get quite uneasy about exploration based learning because inevidably you don’t cover all the material unless you have years of teaching experience and a graduate degree in teaching.

  13. says

    No spitting on the street.I know what you wantHe resolved to give up smoking.The teams are coming onto the field.What’s the weather like to day? Does the computer ever make a mistake.It rather surprised me.Is this the fight bus for the Capital Library? Cancer is a deadly disease.Will you connect this wire to the television %3

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