Sunday, February 20, 2011

What's the Point of Science Lab

One of the recent comments got me thinking about science lab. I'm not the lab science sort. The whole reason that I started taking computer science was because when I was in college we were required to take four courses in the "division of the sciences" and I had zero interest in doing anything with a lab. This is also why I took physics. I skipped the first two quarters of physics (which had labs) and jumped directly into a course called "Introductory Physics III." The more descriptive title would have been too long for the course catalog: "A Survey of Early 20th Century Models of the Atom that All Turn Out to be Wrong (Plus a Week of Special Relativity)." At the end of "Introductory Physics IV" we finally got to the Dirac wave equation. Needless to say: No labs in this sequence. And since a decent fraction of the homework assignments in computer science started out with the phrase "Use induction to proveā€¦" this was a great way for me to fulfill my science requirement without taking any labs.

New York State required high school science classes to do labs. The biology labs tended to have a point: This is what the inside of this creature looks like in real life, as it is hard to see how all the parts fit together in the picture in the textbook. Almost every lab involved either cutting up some sort of critter or putting something under the microscope.

Chemistry labs were about careful measuring and the use of equipment. I remember that we had a titration lab. When my "Tiger Mother" learned that titration was coming up, she brought me into her lab on a weekend and made me practice titration until I was very good at it so that I would do well on the lab. (Normally I tried very hard to keep her in the dark about what was going on at school.) We mixed together some chemicals and ended up with something that smelled like bananas. We mixed together some chemicals and got a sticky glop that we were told was polyester; this did nothing for our 1980s-view of polyester, as everything from the 1970s was very uncool. We were not allowed to handle the potassium ourselves; only the chemistry teacher was allowed to throw globs of potassium into beakers of water.*

When we got to physics, we took the greatest pride in our lab write-ups.** We typed up careful derivations of how to find the moment of inertia of a spinning equilateral triangle. We had neat tables in Microsoft Excel that showed our data. Most of the time that we spent in lab was spent chit-chatting, though, as Microsoft Excel created data for us. As we were constantly told, if your percent error was larger than 10%, you had to redo the experiment. So we just saved ourselves the effort: We put numbers between 0 and 10 into the "percent error" column in Excel, and then Excel generated appropriate measurements that we claimed to have taken. Our labs were award-winning; we were frequently recognized as "Student Writer of the Week" for our physics labs, beating out essays written in English and History classes.

Looking back, my working assumption seemed to be that the purpose of lab (aside from looking at the insides of living things) was to learn how to use lab equipment. Just like the kids in auto shop learned how to use the tools of their trade, science lab seemed to be training in how to use bunsen burners and balances. I imagined that advanced science labs would teach pipetting and other, more sophisticated techniques. And since that was clearly a waste of my time, I avoided taking lab sciences when I was in college. What is the real purpose of science lab?


*Eighth grade science was more of a free-for-all with a big table of chemicals in the middle of the room. Someone in my class discovered the joy of lighting sodium chlorate on fire. Apparently he stole some from class and took it home in his pocket. Rumor has it that after "the incident" that the school settled with his family.

**Maybe later I will track down some of my old physics labs from high school and include screenshots of the write-ups.