Zero Order

Classroom vs. Research

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on June 20, 2010
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I was talking to my friend Joe, who is working on his MBA in finance. He asked “Do you consider your lab classes research?”

I said no. They’re helpful in teaching rudimentary techniques, things like how to properly measure using a graduated cylinder, or how to connect an  operational amplifier without destroying it. But no, they’re not research, because you’re only following instructions to acheive a predetermined result.

He remarked that he didn’t feel like his classes prepared him enough for doing research or for real life.  I feel the same way. Granted there is no class offered that could have trained me for the work I’m doing, but very little of my classwork has prepared me for doing research. For the most part, it’s been the collection of facts and understanding of concepts. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have the background knowledge, but there’s just so much you’re not prepared for, like experiments that don’t work…again and again. And in pretty much any graduate program, you’ll be doing research.

I could go on at length about the inadequacies in the current education system, but that’s a topic for another post. I do have a few examples of assignments or designs I or people besides me found helpful, and are worth incorporating into curricula:

-Learning instrumentation. In organic chemistry lab, we analyzed our products using IR spectroscopy and on one occasion, NMR spectrscopy. We didn’t do the NMR ourselves, but we prepared the samples and interpreted the results. The other day in my lab, we ran NMR on a chemical. Even though I hadn’t run NMR myself, I was familar with how it worked and understood how to interpret the data.

-Replicating real life scenarios. For a course in Drug Delivery, we had a group project to prepare a mock NIH proposal. That meant we had to invent a hypothesis related to drug delivery and explain how we would go about testing it.  The project made us think about how we would design experiments in order to confirm all the things we said our drug delivery system would do, what results we expected, and problems we might have. It took a lot of literature review, discussion, and revision to formulate good experiments.

-Troubleshooting and problem solving skills. I went to a Bioengineering alumni panel a few months ago. The panelists were in a variety of jobs, but they all said Bioinstrumentation Lab was one of the most helpful courses they took. Your circuit isn’t working? Well, let’s check the connections, examine the components, check settings.

While I wouldn’t expect the classroom to replicate actual research, I’d like to see the above-especially the problem solving-incorporated into other classes. These are small steps that can be taken without a drastic overhaul of American education.


2 Responses to 'Classroom vs. Research'

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  1. Abel said,

    Neat post. We’re on the same page here! (the real-life scenario point I can give to you, if you let me define what “real life” is – otherwise, I don’t need the math that I’m learning to be useful to anyone in particular)

    Now that you mentioned problem solving, let me try to organize my thoughts on the topic:

    If you already know how to resolve an issue as soon as it presents itself, then you’re not really engaging in any problem solving – you’re simply executing a known solution to a problem. If you encounter something that you never specifically learned how to deal with, be it through experience or teaching/training, then you are (hopefully!) doing some problem solving – coming up with a course of action through careful reasoning, executing it, and repeating as desired or necessary.

    Out of those things that you did hundreds of in high school math classes and called problems, perhaps 1-3% required problem solving as explained above, and the rest were there for you to practice techniques. The techniques themselves are nice to know, but the greatest thing you should get out of those classes is the problem solving (ask any math teacher worth their salt). Why are things set up this way then? I have various conjectures on this, but this comment is getting too long. 🙂

  2. Joe said,

    I assumed your lab classes were more project-orientated than following step-by-step procedures. Way back when I was an undergrad in computer science, most of my classes had programming projects. But now, most of my classes have just homework assignments and tests. It’s not the same because I know a test problem 1) has a solution 2) that can be answered in minutes.

    I think projects (or “replicating real life scenarios” as you put it) should be incorporated more into classes. Most real life problems cannot be answered within a two-hour time frame (or however long your tests take).

    But I don’t think that’s going to happen. If every student works on individual projects then there’s a whole lot more work for the professor. But every student works on the same project independently; then there’s likely to be piggy-backing; if not outright copying.

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