How Much Lab Time is Enough

Three hours of lab a week?

Four hours of lab a week?

Independent projects with students coming in at night and on weekends?

How much is enough?

[This blog post idea came from John Long, a gifted professor at Vassar College. Thanks, John!]

I remember well my organic chemistry lab while I was a biology major in college. The lab met for four hours a week for the whole semester, which at my college was 14 weeks long. The labs were long and arduous (sometimes fun, sometimes boring, sometime terrifyingly difficult), often running until 6 or 6:30 in the evening, well past the 5:30pm official end time. We just had to stay there until we successfully extracted the compound, synthesized the organic molecule or made the measurements. One lab session I remember I was there until 7 pm; having skipped lunch and had no dinner, I was woozy and really faint with hunger and from standing up for so many hours at the lab bench. What did I really learn that day?

“Orgo lab is torture!”

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image from:http://www.tcd.ie/Biology_Teaching_Centre/about/

[I did go on to actually love my organic chemistry course, but I continued to find the lab arduous.]

I think that science faculty need to reflect deeply on their pedagogical goals for the laboratory portion of a course. Here are some goals I have for my neuroscience and behavior course laboratory:

1. Introduce students to some of the bread and butter techniques (that are feasible and affordable to do with undergraduate students!) and approaches in neuroscience research. The skills I focus on in my course are fluorescent microscopy of GFP-labeled neurons; use of the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, behavioral assays and statistics, experimental design, scientific writing, figure/graph preparation, oral and written communication of scientific findings.

2. Have students gain experience designing their own experiments.

3. Have students gain prowess in statistical analysis of data and in preparation of publication-quality figures, tables and graphs.

4. Have students learn to identify primary experimental literature articles that relate to the independent projects they are doing in lab and to use primary articles to generate feasible experiment ideas.

5. Have students learn to work in teams conducting experiments, analyzing data and presenting their findings in an oral presentation.

6. Have students learn to write up a professional quality manuscript independently.

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I developed initial lab periods for learning the key lab-based skills of fluorescent microscopy, behavioral assays, experimental design and statistical analysis and science writing/figure preparation. I call these labs “workshops” to make it clear they are skills training sessions. Then, student teams conduct multi-week independent projects that they have designed themselves and that utilize their new skills. The design phase is critical. The projects need to be feasible, affordable and of reasonable length. This takes practice and careful thinking, which they do in consultation with me. The multi-week projects culminate in a “neuroscience symposium” where students present their work. Each student then independently writes up the project in the form of a neuroscience research manuscript.

Some weeks, the “lab time” is not terribly long. But, students have to work together outside of lab time in order to produce quality work. Some weeks, we don’t hold formal lab, but instead I hold tutorials with smaller groups of students. In helping students design experiments, I stress the importance of developing a feasible experiment, one that addresses an interesting biological question clearly, but also one that isn’t too complicated or time-consuming. An experiment that they can repeat, too, to increase sample size or in case of disaster.

The students learn a LOT about doing neuroscience and behavior research and about translating an interesting question into a feasible study. It’s not about hours spent at the lab bench, is it? It’s about doing science, the process of discovery. Need it be arduous?

What are your goals for the laboratory portion of your science courses? What are your goals for discussion sections or tutorials or other types of hands-on extensions of your courses?

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