Teaching others helped me teach myself

Photo by Elliott Brockelbank

Everything I ever needed to know about being a successful scientist I didn’t learn taking a lab class.

Sorry chemistry department, but the hour I spent titrating potassium permanganate did not make me any better at designing experiments.

I apologize School of Biology, running around screaming about finding beans didn’t develop my ability to deal with failed experiments.

I regret to inform you physics department, but a myriad of whiteboard problems did nothing to build my scientific writing skills. In fact, pretty much the only thing I got out of lab classes was the knowledge of how to use a few techniques to get out of class as fast as possible.

Now, I’m not trying to bash lab classes at Tech. They get the bulk of the job done. I’m just trying to say I did not get much out of taking a lab class. I got much more out of teaching them.

For the past year I was given the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant (TA) for the BIOL 1510 and 1520 labs.

Walking in, I figured, “How hard could it be? All I had to do was make sure students did not unleash the next plague on Tech’s campus, and I’d be good.” That was before the reality of being the go to source for information set in.

When students take these labs, they’re encouraged to think big, to push beyond the conventional experiments, and TA’s are tasked with job of poking holes in their thinking.

TA’s are challenged to quickly analyze developed procedures for missing pieces and potential failures. You have to think about material use, data analysis, and overall effectiveness before students even pick up a beaker.

Doing this 12 times a week for a variety of different experiments intimately acquaints you with experimental design in a way that designing one experiment a week never will.  Moving this skill into a research setting, I can promise you that improving a designed procedure, not actually designing a procedure is a skill that a many people lack.

Additionally, there are the lab reports, the bane of pretty much every student’s existence. I had always done well on these, and figured that I was at least a halfway decent scientific writer. I in no way, however, could tell you why I thought that or what made good writing. Then I was forced to grade. Over the course of 210 writing assignments (I counted), I’ve seen pretty much everything from embellished prose in titles to publication worthy abstracts, and I’ve been forced to quantify the quality of it. In grading, I’ve come to understand the nuances of scientific writing, and I could now actually explain to someone what made my writing good rather than simply having the confidence that it was.

If you been in the classes I’ve been in at Tech, you’re familiar with the idea that to truly understand something, you have to be able to teach it to someone else. Over this is past year my understanding and appreciation for good science has increased tenfold.

At the end of the day, I just hope I got to the point of true understanding soon enough to impart at least some of the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained to my students.