Whenever I talk to first-year Science students and ask them what they were most afraid of when they first started, the answer is almost always “labs!”
Labs can be one of the most intimidating classes that first year students have to tackle. In high school, a “lab” consisted of your teacher demoing a simple procedure, which you then repeated with a group of 5 or 6 friends, in ample time, and taking a few notes along the way. If you screwed up, you could repeat the lab, no problem, and it usually only counted for a few marks.
University labs are a whole different ball game. Most intro-level science courses have a lab component. In general, this is a 3 hour period where you have an experiment to do, and you are expected to carry it out correctly (the first time!) during the three hours, either by yourself or with a partner. In my U of A career so far, I have taken a total of 5 different labs, and by the end of this semester it will be 7! Each lab has its own lab manual, its own Teaching Assistant (TA), and its own rules and safety regulations. Overall, labs can be pretty overwhelming if you have no idea what to expect. Luckily, I am here to tell you that it’s going to be fine! Although they can be a little scary at first, labs can be the coolest part of your day if you go about them in the right way!
So, without further ado, here is your crash course in first-year Science labs:
1) Read the manual: It is amazing what you can learn by taking the time to buy the lab manual a week or so in advance and flipping through it. Read anything that is captioned “READ BEFORE FIRST LAB”. They aren’t putting that there for kicks – it’s actually important. If you have a pre-lab due at the beginning of lab, do it – it clarifies the procedure and familiarizes you with the chemicals/agents you will be using.
2) Come prepared: Alway bring your completed pre-lab (if needed) and your lab manual. Most intro labs that use chemicals/biological agents require lab coats and safety goggles, and they require that you dress appropriately. This means no flats, no open-toed shoes, no tank tops with spaghetti straps, no short skirts/shorts, etc. Trust me, this is for your safety – if/when you accidentally spill hydrochloric acid on yourself, you will thank me.
3) Follow directions: Ever wonder why there are rules in your lab manual such as “Never use your mouth to pipet” and “Never taste your solution”? It’s because someone decided to try it! Sticking to your procedure and listening to your TA is important for your own safety as well as getting a good grade. Although it may be tempting to mix some left-over chemicals together and see what happens, don’t do it. You could be docked marks – or worse, kicked out of the lab. So listen to your TA and follow their advice – this will help you to get a better grade in the long run, and prevent accidents.
4) Manage your time: Time management is a huge component of labs. Although 3 hours may seem like an eternity, the time flies. So know your procedure ahead of time and don’t waste time throughout. If the lineup for wash acetone is really long, prep for your next step instead, or if you’re working in partners, delegate tasks. My intro Organic Chemistry course actually had a quiz at the beginning of each lab; this forced us to know the procedure and techniques beforehand, making it easier to manage our time.
5) Write it down: Writing down your observations is really important in most science labs, as you are expected to complete a lab report, or “post-lab”, following the lab period. Lab manuals generally provide you with space to do this, so you can hand in your observations at the end of the period, or take them home to include in your post-lab. Taking clear and accurate notes throughout the lab makes your life much easier, so do it as much as possible.
6) Troubleshoot: Despite all your precautions, something is bound to go wrong at some point. Your solution won’t recrystallize. You break the test tube containing your product. You cross contaminate a culture by mistake. All your physics calculations turn out to be wrong half way through the lab. Don’t panic! Troubleshooting is all part of the lab experience. If your error is small, correct it and move on. If it requires you to restart, and you have time, try to make up for lost time along the way. If you have no time left and you’ve lost a product or made a big mistake, try not to worry too much: although you’ll be docked marks,it’s only one lab, not the end of the world. If you explain your situation to your TA, they are usually pretty understanding and can offer advice. After all, mistakes are a part of the learning process – after you screw up something once, you definitely won’t screw it up the next time!
As a student in Science, labs are an inevitable part of your degree. Sometimes, they can be awesome; other times, they aren’t exactly your favourite three hours of the week. Still, keeping these simple tips in mind will help make your time in the lab a whole lot more enjoyable!