Lab courses & MRI & Neutral Theory

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RPM has a long post about the importance of lab courses (in response to a philosopher with some background in physics who suggests doing away with undergraduate lab courses) and Aziz points out that the father of magnetic resonance imaging has died.

Update: From the author of the original post (in the comments):

Actually, I don’t advocate doing away with undergraduate labs. Undergraduate labs, done well, can be valuable and are essential in training undergraduate majors in the sciences. What I argue is that the attitude prevailing at many institutions that every or most theory classes needs a corresponding lab keeps science departments from being able to teach classes that would be of great value to students, especially non-majors.

Update II: Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing to RPM’s excellent intro post to Neutral Theory (check out the graphs!).

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7 Comments

  1. Actually, I don’t advocate doing away with undergraduate labs. Undergraduate labs, done well, can be valuable and are essential in training undergraduate majors in the sciences. What I argue is that the attitude prevailing at many institutions that every or most theory classes needs a corresponding lab keeps science departments from being able to teach classes that would be of great value to students, especially non-majors.

  2. I agree that lab courses (which I didn’t take after high school) are really essential to get a feeling for how science works and what its significance is. From a humanities (historical, general knowledge) point of view it’s also important to try to give students an idea how difficult discovery is, and the things about science making cumulative discovery possible. Science is usually taught as a body of results rather than as a method of learning and discovering. Creationists, for example, seem to take evolution as a body of doctrines, while mostly ignorant of the evidence and argument by which these doctrines were reached, and then freely construct out of nothing bodies of doctrine they like better.  
     
    The same would be true of history, BTW. You can read literally a ton of secondary books about history (that would be 800 or 1000 2-lb. books, an easily attainable goal) without having any concept of how history is written from sources (documentary, archaeological, climate records, etc.) Once you start thinking of sources you find out that some areas of history are constructed from a very small amount if data (e.g., the life of Alexander the great), whereas in other areas too much data is the problem (XIXc history, for example).

  3. Personally, I found that chem labs were far superior to “theory” classes, but then chemistry is the science of hindsight.

  4. I found that chem labs were far superior to “theory” classes, but then chemistry is the science of hindsight. 
     
    my own experience was that physics labs for non-majors (i.e., chem & bio & geology) were a joke (bouncing balls around?). physical chemistry lab often had little (if any) relationship to what was being taught in the lecture. on the other hand, organic and biochem lab sections seemed more worthwhile. some of the advanced ecology classes with a lot of field work (e.g., 3 day weekends in the field) seemed OK too, at least to habituate you to getting sick & fly bitten :-)

  5. Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing to RPM’s excellent intro post to Neutral Theory (check out the graphs!). 
     
    This plug shows up on the main GNXP page, but not on the page for this post. Anyway, the graphs aren’t my idea — they’re adapted from those used in a popgen course that I’ve both taken and TA’d.

  6. I totally agree with Razib on the distinction between physics and chemistry labs. Another important point to add, which addresses the main question, “Is learning science meaning doing science?”, is that many of the upper level undergraduates who are bright and qualified often volunteer (or work for credit hours) to work in a lab. I volunteered in a biopsychology lab as an undergrad and supervise undergraduates today. I have students constantly analyzing and organizing data, helping me prepare for procedures, staining tissue. This is where the rubber meets the road. Larry Summers once proposed that all students work for a year in the sciences. Thing is, the self-selecting process that highly motivated juniors and seniors bring to these labs would be watered down if everyone jumped in. I wouldn’t want 75-85% of undergrads I come in contact with to work in my lab.

  7. they’re adapted from those used in a popgen course that I’ve both taken and TA’d. 
     
    i know, but it takes someone with a lot of time, or who enjoys procrastinating, to draw them up instead of scanning them.

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