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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: In defense of reports

Introduction

I, a microbiology major, live in an apartment with a chemistry major. She often complains about the length of her lab reports — sometimes in the hard work required, occasionally in the context of how much paper and ink that it uses (as much as 10 to 15 pages for the more hellish labs).

I often don’t have much to complain about back to her. I’m in my first microbiology lab this quarter, and the lab report I completed a couple of weeks ago was required to be a grand total of three pages.

How hard do we each work? Consider this my lab report. I won’t stick with the traditional layout of a research article, as this is The California Aggie, not Science Magazine. However, I’ll introduce the majors.

Ignoring the general education requirements, a chemistry major requires 107 units total while the microbiology major requires 106 to 120 units total. The variation of the latter is mostly due to which organic chemistry class you decide to take, and, if you’re an older major, which calculus courses you took in your freshman year.

Materials and Methods

My materials and methods for answering the question I gave above, of how hard we each work, consisted just of my own observations of the requirements for each class. I can play fast and loose with these rules as, again, this is The Aggie, not Science.

Results

We spend about the same amount of time studying, but the chemistry majors spend far more time writing lab reports than I do. We biology majors have fewer and shorter lab reports, as well as labs that are nearly all discussion with few or no experiments (Physics 7, anyone?).

Discussion

Why do two science majors, both with an emphasis on research, have such differing amounts of laboratory experience? We both took the Chemistry 2 series, which is the general chemistry class. Every lab had an experiment, but mine did not require lab reports, only answering online questions that slowly walked the student through the math and what the results could mean. Biology 2 was even less demanding; though we had many worksheet questions to answer, there usually wasn’t an actual experiment or lab report.

I suppose in freshman year of college, easing the students into writing full lab reports might be a good idea, since some high schools might have been less demanding than others. However, when I compare my organic chemistry class (Chemistry 118) to the organic chemistry that the chemistry majors take (Chemistry 128), the differences become even starker. My organic chemistry class only required a lab report for a couple of the experiments; her organic chemistry class required a full lab report for all experiments.

One critique is that I’m working with a sample of only two students. This is definitely a problem with drawing definitive conclusions, although it helps that we’re both doing well in our chosen majors (there isn’t one person slacking off with grades to skew the results, for example).

At first glance, this seems like an advantage for biology majors. College students are busy enough studying as it is, especially since on the quarter system it seems like we are always in midterm season.

I know that requiring lab reports in basic chemistry and biology classes seems pointless, because the experiments that they set up are ones for which the professors already know the answer.

This grind does have a point though: practice. No one can learn to write in a certain style, especially the very precise style of lab reports, without practicing several times on an easy experiment or activity. Without this practice, many biology students will end up going into professional laboratories with two or more years less experience looking after experiments and writing their findings than chemistry or physics majors.

If the findings are something no one has ever seen before, you’re not going to have a computer program there to slowly guide you through the algebra. There won’t be a worksheet to ask leading questions. Those things can be very useful tools, especially in the beginning of a college career. But in the real world, it’s well-written lab reports that count.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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