Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Laboratory Technique, the Inexperienced & Non-Experts

Key Thought Solid, serious teaching at University, replaced with "science is such fun!" lessons, caters for only for those who were poorly taught as School. However, it is precisely this group of the poorly-taught who need rigorous and intensive remedial teaching, delivered by experienced academics who have a proven track record of successful teaching

Going through reams of old and recent University Chemistry laboratory manuals, the thing that strikes me is their change in character.  In the past, and I mean about 8 years ago, students were expected to read and intelligently understand scientific protocols set down in full sentences. Such manuals were prepared by proper academics and experienced scientists. Recent so-called updated "user-friendly" ones, re-written by lab technicians and demonstrators, present lab protocols, light on the science and heavy on cartoon-type pictures, complete with the odd joke in speech bubbles. Does this have any implications for learning outcomes? I think it has.  Thoughtful, serious lab work has been replaced with the lazy following of cartoons, enjoying the feeling that "science is fun". I cite one example of a possible repercussion.

A certain brand-new demonstrator, determined to have no interference in her first year of employment, wanted to manage the lab session without the usual health and safety supervision provided by the experienced academic. An accident occurred which any experienced  scientist would have spotted was the consequence of poor health and safety training, based entirely on a lack of fore-sight; after all, fore-sight is the reward of experience. Student X had heated  liquid A in a test-tube while chatting and  pointing the test-tube at another student Y. Liquid A bumped and  student Y got splashed. This same experiment had run safely for a decade, with no accidents, under the experienced eye of the past senior demonstrator (now retired).

Following on from this incident, the collective decision of managerial non-experts and the inexperienced self-justifying demonstrator, was to immediately replace liquid A with water! It hardly mattered to this group of decision-makers that boiling water can also scald!

Would it not have been better to teach science students to never point a test-tube at anyone when heating any liquid, including water? Not to talk when doing experiments?

One further thought:- I suppose I mustn't ask why 18 year-olds had not already learnt this in school.

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