Columns

Johnson ’14: Abolish the lab report

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Opinions Columnist

Many years ago, the elders of education sat down and revolutionized modern teaching. They came up with an invention that taught students to think critically, synthesize data and open our minds to the wonders of science. Indeed, without this development in education, students would be hopelessly adrift in a sea of abstract knowledge.

Where would be without the lab report?

A lot better off, in my opinion. Generations of students have spent hours in lab, performing experiments predesigned for them, collecting the required data and then spending hours mindlessly spewing out the reports in the format demanded by professors. It’s a particularly soul-crushing exercise because there is absolutely no academic benefit to doing lab reports.

In theory, the point of a lab is to see the scientific theories learned in class in action. There is something very worthwhile in actually witnessing science rather than just being told that it’s there and that it follows the rules outlined in class. Last semester in my developmental biology lab I was able to witness the importance of various ions in fertilization by attempting to fertilize sea urchin eggs in several different types of saltwater. That course was an exception to the rule of uninspiring labs — it was wonderfully unstructured and designed for us to perform experiments that interested us.

But the magic of science is lost when, after an hours-long physics lab, we are asked to spend a full day recopying our data into a Word document, performing calculations to answer questions that are given to us, and writing useless summaries of why our data do not match the expected results. These types of assignments are not just boring. They also separate the scientific method from one of its most fundamental components: creativity.

Educational philosopher John Dewey, whose work has inspired modern progressive education, once said, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” Where is the imagination in our labs? Even if we aren’t looking to make a “great advance” in PHYS 0040: “Basic Physics,” shouldn’t the goal of lab be to inspire students’ creativity and vision?

If you don’t believe Dewey, what about Einstein? He wrote: “The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” But in modern lab reports, there’s no room for formulating our own problems. Instead of being challenged to ask our own questions about science, we are given the questions and the formulae, and are told what to write. When is the last time you heard people tell you that they really enjoyed writing their lab report, or that they learned a lot from a lab period?

Far too often, labs shortchange students. We are told the answer is what is important, and everything else is given to us. But the truth is that the ability to ask good questions is far more valuable than the ability to answer them. Asking the right questions can lead to remarkable discoveries. Craig Mello ’82, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on RNA interference, said he was attracted to science because of its “focus on asking questions and admitting no absolutes,” as he told the journal Cell Death and Differentiation in 2007. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t mention answering other people’s questions or following a flow chart as something that drew him to science.

If we want to produce more scientists like Mello, we have to change the way we think about lab work. There is no better place to start than with the elimination of the lab report as we know it. It is an antiquated, useless exercise that wastes student time that could be better spent observing more science firsthand through extended hours in the lab. If there must be a written report, it should require students to generate questions, propose follow-up experiments and think critically. Most of our current lab reports fail on all these fronts.

During my four years at Brown, I’ve been amazed at the high quality of teaching that is simply expected of our professors here. This is a place defined by free inquiry, critical thought and creativity. But we can do better. We must reevaluate our methods for teaching science. Rather than instilling a weekly sense of dread in students by assigning mindless lab reports, we need to do whatever we can to encourage students to want to figure out how the world works.

 

Garret Johnson ’14 is probably working on a lab report as you read this. He can be reached at garret_johnson@brown.edu. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays. 

  • MD/PhD Candidate, Brown’09

    Maybe lab reports need improvement, but actually getting rid of them would be incredibly foolish. Reporting your results to the public is as critical a part of science as the creativity that you feel is lacking. If you cannot effectively communicate your findings then your findings are meaningless.

    If anything, you take issue with course labs where you are not designing or at least performing experiments but simply repeating well documented and observed phenomenon. I don’t know which courses you have taken, but when I took BI80 (intro to physiology) and BI47 (genetics) we definitely performed experiments.

    I also think you overlook the fact that in order to be creative in a meaningful way, one must understand the current state of knowledge. You can’t teach someone to explore the world of physics in without making sure they actually understand basic physics (the point of PH4). Seeing physics or chemistry in action often makes it easier to understand (and a lot cooler).

    I find your Craig Mello reference and your complaint about “writing useless summaries of why our data do not match the expected results,” particularly interesting since this is basically how RNAi was discovered. The data regarding RNAi existed well before Drs. Mello and Fire entered the equation (the first description of the phenomenon was in 78, a full 20 years before Fire and Mello’s seminal paper). The issue is that people assumed the deviation from expectation was simply an error in their experiments. They didn’t spend enough time dissecting why their experiments weren’t working as intended repeatedly and it 20 years later that Drs. Mello and Fire figured out that it was double stranded RNA working in a catalytic fashion that all that preexisting deviation from expected made sense and became the new expected.

    I also think that frankly, class labs don’t have the time or resources to truly teach a high level of scientific inquiry. That’s what getting involved in a professor’s lab is for. Class labs should be teaching you the basics (like how various techniques work, how to analyze data, how to critique your data) so that students are learning how and why the things we know work and so that they can be as useful as possible when entering those labs and start learning how to ask the bigger, more forward thinking questions that actually generate new knowledge.