Every week, the average Yale student may spend around 12 hours in class. But molecular biophysics and biochemistry major Alexandra Antonioli ’07 spends over 19 hours in class — nearly half of that time in her white lab coat and black-rimmed protective goggles.
For all the time Antonioli and other science students dedicate to lab, they only end up with half a credit for their labor. Especially when a student like Antonioli opts to take two labs, the schedule can be grueling. The long walks up Science Hill and hours spent on lab reports seem to many students to be worth more than the academic credit gained. With all of the work that goes into labs, scores of lab students said they want to see changes.
“It’s a hard trek up there, but it has to be done if you want to do the [science] majors,” Antonioli said. “I think it should be worth more credits. The work I put in for lab is just as much as I put in for a regular one-credit class, or even more.”
Yet Yale’s administration is hesitant to award a full credit for laboratory work. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, after conferring with William Segraves, the dean’s advisor on science education, said credits are not awarded based on time spent in class but on how the course fits into the general Yale education.
“While a student may have three hours per week of contact time in a lab course and the same amount of contact time in a lecture course, the nature of the contact is in most cases quite different,” Salovey said in an e-mail. “The lab often involves a certain amount of trial and error, or some waiting for chemical reactions, growth of organisms, or taking measurements, for instance.”
When the in-lab time is work-intensive, Salovey said, the out-of-lab work tends to be lighter.
“In other cases, students may spend as much or more time on the write-ups, but it’s not clear that this is in general out of proportion with the intensity of effort that hard-working students put into reading books and writing papers, for instance, in non-lab courses,” he said.
But most students interviewed for the story said they do not agree with Salovey’s point. Although some time in lab involves waiting, students said they usually have to take measurements or carefully watch their experiments during that time. And students said the work that goes into writing a lab report is often equivalent to writing a paper every week.
“Because the amount of time we spend in here is equal to the time we spend in class, we should get a full credit,” said Lorrie Kiger ’08, a student in the Chemistry 119 lab course. “I spend almost a full day writing a lab report.”
Chemistry 119 teaching assistant Laura Thomas GRD ’10 said lab time actually does not involve much waiting because Yale’s labs are so well organized. A core group of Yale employees work with the professors and TAs to make sure each station is equipped with all the chemicals and equipment it may need.
“Everything is all really well set up,” Katie Wiacek ’08 said as she titrated a purple liquid during Chemistry 119 lab Monday. “The only thing I have against it is the time. I dread it a lot of the time, but otherwise when I’m here I don’t mind it.”
Swirling the beaker until the liquid turned clear, Wiacek said she was missing a lift with the varsity lacrosse team. Because labs are only scheduled between 1 and 5 p.m., many athletes in Group IV have no way around missing team commitments. Wiacek’s lab time also cuts into her lunch time, a nuisance Salovey said he is trying to address.
“We recognize that it can be difficult for students to get from one end of campus to the other for consecutive classes that are far apart,” Salovey said. “Many students who have a lecture, then a lab later in the day choose to have lunch on Science Hill, and we hope to create more options for students to take science classes down the hill and some non-science classes up the hill or closer to the hill.”
Not all Yalies enjoy lab, but for some, time in lab is the only thing that makes the whole process bearable. Although Kiger said the pre- and post-lab work can be oppressive, she said she takes pleasure in the lab itself.
But physics professor Michael Zeller, who runs the Physics 165 lab, said he is troubled by the level of student disinterest in labs. Due to medical school requirements, he said, students without much interest in physics end up in his lab.
In the effort to “spice up” his lab, Zeller said he is working with some of his former TAs to change the format of his lab class. He has already begun preventing excessive out-of-lab work by deducting points from long lab reports.
“[Physics 165] is a trivial lab,” Zeller said. “I often joke about how we give kids a spring and a rock and tell them to amuse themselves for an hour and a half with them. Now that I’ve been in it a little I think these labs are pretty good, but what disturbs me is I don’t think the kids are very interested in them.”
Although the many students believe labs deserve more than half a credit, there are some who disagree.
“Labs themselves are kind of interesting, but there is a lot of unnecessary work with the repetition of lab write-ups before you get to the lab, during the lab and after the lab,” Alex Chiu ’07 said. “So I don’t necessarily think you should get a full credit for labs — there’s not much to it. It’s not like a lecture course.”
Yet some professors and lab course coordinators, such as Chemistry instructor Narasimhan Ganapathi, said the amount of work involved in most labs warrants a full credit.
“I am in strong support of their feeling, because here at Yale, especially lab courses in chemistry are independent courses that don’t go with lecture courses, and students put in a lot of work,” Ganapathi said.
Though he believes half a credit is sufficient for a lab course, Salovey said he values the contribution of lab classes to a science education.
“It’s really a very different type of experience to learn about something in a hands-on way, as opposed to from a book or from a lecture,” Salovey said. “That tangible experience is the real thing, is something that can add immensely to the learning process.”
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