As someone who entered college as a prospective science student, I knew I would be taking lab classes, and frankly, I was a little terrified. Last year, I only had a general chemistry lab, but that was stressful enough that I considered dropping chemistry altogether in favor of classes with no laboratory component. You see, I prefer cooking over baking. And that might not seem relevant to this post about lab classes, but what I mean to say is that following precise instructions is not my strong suit and doesn’t put me at ease like chucking random ingredients into a pot does. Don’t get me wrong, I can definitely do it if needed, but having to follow a strict procedure is kind of stressful for me. What if I overlook a step and ruin my experiment? What if I accidentally pour 0.02 mL more solution in than needed and it explodes? What if . . . ? If you think that this is just anxious overthinking on my part, you’re probably right. Lab classes are not in my comfort zone, and I’m working on feeling more comfortable and self-assured, but this semester definitely helped me feel more confident in the lab and I even learned how to relax and have some fun!
During my fall semester, I had a lab class in BIOL 100: Organismal Biology and CHEM 205: Principles of Organic Chemistry, plus a bonus lab in ANTH 203: Introduction to Archaeology.
Organismal Biology: Lab and Lecture
One of the best parts about the biology lab was being able to work in groups! Group work can be tricky and I feel like everyone has mixed experiences in high school, but just as a heads-up, it doesn’t go away in college! In fact, I’ve had group projects in 4 of my classes this semester, and some mild collaboration in my chemistry lab. However, after a year of remote learning, it was nice to actually get to know some of my classmates on a more personal level, both during class and when we met up outside of class to study or grab hot chocolate and burgers.
As for the lab itself, I was honestly not sure what to expect of the introductory biology laboratory component. My friends taking the introductory course at other colleges all seemed to be growing bacteria in petri dishes. Oberlin’s BIOL 100 seems to focus more on macroorganisms. Although we did peer into microscopes to study for our lab practical exam and to watch fern gametophytes, we also observed enzyme function, dissected rats and grasshoppers to compare anatomy and structure, and worked in groups to design an experiment on plants to learn more about plant growth and hormones.
During lecture, our biology professor, who is the resident plant expert and fanatic at Oberlin, was very excited to take my BIOL 100 class up to the greenhouse on the third floor of the Science Center. I never even knew that there was a greenhouse up there (classic second-year-who-is-really-a-clueless-first-year moment), and it was especially comforting being in the humid greenhouse on the cold fall and winter mornings.
Principles of Organic Chemistry
My organic chemistry lab was the one that made me the most nervous. I wasn’t very confident during my general chemistry lab last year; due to COVID, we had to social distance and work individually, so I didn’t really get to know my labmates very well and I felt like I was on my own with no clue what I was doing! Luckily, this year has been a lot better. For one, most students and faculty members on campus are vaccinated, so while we continued to be careful and mask up inside, the social distancing rules weren’t as strict, so I got to know the other students around me pretty well. I definitely wandered over to their bench more than a few times to confirm what we were doing. The lab TAs and lab instructor were also incredibly helpful and kind when it came to reassuring me and checking my setup. I also felt like I experienced the most growth in this lab in terms of confidence. I was the student whose goggles fogged up on the first day and blindly knocked over a beaker while groping around my fume hood. I guess I could only improve from there! I went from a student who was constantly checking my lab manual and asking classmates and TAs for reassurance that I was following the correct instructions to a student who could conduct a couple of experiments in three hours, only asking questions and asking for confirmation when I really needed it. I even enjoyed some downtime while my experiment ran to finish other chemistry homework. Chemistry lab even became fun towards the end, so I’m going to have to consider if I should take another chemistry class or two in the future.
When we arrived back on campus from Thanksgiving break, I was surprised when my archaeology professor announced that we would be having lab sessions, which I would have known if I had read the syllabus more closely (read your syllabi!). Archaeology labs were intended to supplement our readings and in-class discussions by giving us hands-on experience with various items, including stone tools, pottery shards, and mammalian bones and skulls. (Yes, Oberlin does have a collection of human skulls and bones, and we did spend several classes discussing the ethics of housing human remains.) Since I had archaeology in the afternoon as my last class of the day, it was great to have a chill class where we inspected these objects, took notes, sketched, and pondered their appearance and usage.
All in all, I really enjoyed and would recommend all of my fall semester classes! (The other classes that I took were GERM 203: Intermediate German and CLAS 103: History of Greece.) Since I'm always curious about other people's academic journeys, I hope to write another post about the classes I have taken recently.