Labs instill teamwork outside of lectures

Thursday, November 6, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:29 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Instructor Phil Silverman doesn’t seem fazed by the bustling chatter of General Chemistry Lab DD-1.

“It can actually sound like a successful party if you do it right,” said Silverman, lab coordinator for MU’s chemistry department.

Pockets of action dot the lively lab. Students in translucent aprons and safety glasses dart from station to counter to sink, rescue an overflowing test tube of water, swarm around a tube caked with calcium oxide. Shouts erupt when someone dumps out the wrong samples.

Beneath the lab’s slow-burn chaos is a sense of teamwork and problem solving that students say they rarely find in the lecture hall.

Labs like Silverman’s allow students to “get a hands-on way” to find out how things happen, said assistant professor Paul Duval, who teaches the lecture component of General Chemistry. And the lab offers them something more: a grasp of the scientific process.

“It lets them know how science is done,” Duval said. Students explore the unknown, unsure of what the outcome will be, he said. But by the end of the lab sessions, Duval expects students to reach “a meaningful conclusion based on what happened.”

Duval said his lectures are “content-driven” by necessity, and as a result, students are generally observers.

Freshman John Kalbac said that compared to lecture, the lab is more hands-on and interactive, and it’s easy to get answers to questions. “If you make a mistake, there’s somebody else right there,” he said.

Sporting a Grim Reapers T-shirt from his recent Navy days, Silverman starts his lab in the classroom, where he runs students through the basic properties of the metals they will work with.

Once in the lab, however, students must draw conclusions based on what they see so they can explain it in their own words, Silverman said.

Science in the high schools

Dan Miller, chairman of Hickman High School’s science department, said labs are an integral part of any science class. “If students are actually doing science, they’re going to do it better,” he said.

Miller, who teaches honors biology and a science survey course, said most Hickman science classes include “quite a few” lab-based projects and at least one experiment per class unit. The Columbia Public School District’s curriculum balances basic knowledge with “process skills” — learning to think scientifically by designing experiments, he said.

Such skills aren’t just academic, Miller said.

“We as members of society can be duped really easily,” Miller said. Students are taught to question the evidence and research behind everyday claims of health hazards and side effects before blindly accepting them as facts, he said.

Some factors can hinder labs, however. Budget cuts have pushed enrollment in some Hickman lab classes above 24, the National Science Teachers Association’s maximum for a “safe and effective learning environment.”

Self motivation from students is a must

While some students are highly motivated, others place a low priority on succeeding in science and their attention is elsewhere, Silverman said.

Duval said MU’s chemistry department is developing a “feedback loop” to hold the attention of students — including many non-chemistry majors — by incorporating more from lab into the lectures.

Silverman said getting eight professors to agree on what they want out of their lab teaching assistants is easier said than done. As lab coordinator, what goes on from day to day in the chemistry labs is up to him, he said.

If the casual clamor in Silverman’s lab is any indication, he’s doing something right.

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