Interdisciplinary Web-Based Teaching Laboratory Materials

Wiess School of Natural Sciences
George R. Brown School of Engineering
Rice University

Detailed list of program wide teaching and learning objectives

A. Basic laboratory skills

ability to measure and report uncertain quantities with appropriate precision

Uncertain quantities are any measured or derived numbers that must be rounded to an appropriate number of significant figures. Every physics problem you have ever worked should have required appropriate rounding of answers. All teaching laboratory courses that involve quantitative work will require the same. Despite all of this emphasis, many of you persistently ignore uncertainty when reporting data and calculations.

Example. A 1% (w/v) solution is defined as 1 gram solute in 100 milliters solvent, final volume. It is easy to see that 3 gms solute in 100 ml final volume is a 3% solution. Bu suppose you have 10 gms solute in 700 ml final volume. If you would report having a 1.42857143% solution, then you need to work on this concept.

ability to convert raw data to a physically meaningful form

Conversion of raw data to a physically meaningful form refers to selection of appropriate units and to convert from measured quantities with arbitrary units to quantities with units that have universal significance.

For example, you should be able to read raw sensor data from a chart with a time axis, and convert a slope to a rate in meaningful units versus time. Another scientist will know what you mean if you report a rate in millimoles molecular oxygen generated per minute, but will get no useful information out of "number of squares per inch of chart record."

ability to apply appropriate methods of analysis to raw data

Appropriate methods refers to your choice of an analytical method, such as whether or not to plot data, appropriate plot type, scale, and units, and choice of statistical analysis if appropriate. You should always be prepared to represent experimental error when appropriate.

ability to carry out common laboratory procedures correctly

Examples include pipetting or weighing in a chemistry or biosciences laboratory, cell transfer in a bioengineering lab, and wiring a circuit or using an oscilloscope in physics.

ability to adhere to instructions on laboratory safety and to recognize hazardous situations and act appropriately

To the extent that our laboratory coursework involves hazards, we ask you to adhere to specific safety rules, including both proper attire and behavior. Industrial and government laboratories, as well as most medical institutions, have very high standards for saftety practices. We also ask you to exercise common sense when faced with potentially hazardous situations.

ability to perform logical troubleshooting of laboratory procedures

Examples include checking intermediate steps in any protocol, and testing a procedure with known inputs, such as using a wave generator to test a circuit or using a known protein mixture to test an assay solution. As you progress through our laboratory courses you should eventually be able to solve your own problems without having to get an instructor's help.

B. Communication and record keeping

ability to maintain an up-to-date laboratory notebook (including proper documentation of outside resources) which is of sufficient detail that others could repeat any of your experiments if necessary

You should be in the habit of documenting all laboratory procedures completely and at the time you conduct them, in chronological order. Any information needed to write up an experiment should be in your notebook, and a competent scientist who is unfamiliar with the work should be able to read your notebook, make sense of what you did, and be able to repeat the experiments. Document sources, such as original publications you used as a source of methods, in your notebook.

ability to talk about your results in a clear and concise manner

You should be able to summarize and discuss a protocol. You should also be able to orally answer questions about a procedure or piece of equipment in the laboratory. If you have good speaking skills you will have an advantage in almost any undertaking.

To make a good oral presentation, you need to clearly present all necessary information to an uninformed audience in an effective (straightforward, dynamic) manner. One should be able to talk about a familiar subject at the level that is appropriate for the audience. Experience in presenting posters is also valuable particularly if you are considering post-graduate research. To the extent that poster presentation forms a basis for discussion of ongoing work, this is a type of oral communication.

ability to write effectively in appropriate style and depth

We expect you to have fundamental writing skills upon entry into the program, including the ability to properly design paragraphs and to organize ideas in paragraph form. If you are not confident in your writing skills you may want to consider taking a course in English composition or technical writing.

In addition to fundamental writing skills, technical writing requires that you be able to

  • introduce a paper, providing a full and complete rationale for a study, including clear statements of hypothesis(es), objectives, and significance of the work.
  • convert details, such as specific procedures, to a general process; for example, write up a concise materials and methods section that includes only the minimal information needed to ensure reproducibility of the work
  • prepare tables, figures, and graphs that succinctly summarize critical data; appropriate statistical analysis may need to be included.
  • organize discussion of data effectively, including explanations of the relationship of each figure, table, and/or set of data to the objectives of a study.
  • address one or more questions in a well-organized discussion, incorporating results into the discussion, clearly distinguishing new information and/or speculation from established facts and theories
  • present concepts in sufficient depth to provide a full and complete explanation.
  • write up a complete and concise summary (abstract) for a paper, including all major results and conclusions, supported by quantitative data if applicable.
  • exercise economy of words and avoid redundancy. For example, a figure legend should complement the text rather than repeat it.

ability to access relevant information from the library and other information resources

You should be able to use search indexes, find journals, select and organize appropriate references, cite references in a paper, and prepare a bibliography or list of literature cited.

C. Maturity and responsibility

ability to effectively prepare in advance for laboratory work (extended, of course, to any undertaking that requires advance preparation)

ability to learn from mistakes

In introductory courses most of the mistakes you make will be on assignments such as quizzes, calculations, lab reports, and the like. We expect you to accept criticism and take suggestions, showing improvement the next time you encounter a similar situation.

As you progress throughout the program, we expect you to become self-critical and to take personal responsibility for learning.

ability to take the initiative and work independently

You won't always have a lab partner to lean on. It is important that you be able to identify an objective, determine for yourself how to accomplish it, and carry out the work yourself.

ability to work effectively as part of a team

While individual initiative is essential there is no way to get around the fact that most science in today's world requires collaboration with others. For most of us, working well with others is crucial for success. In a teaching lab, you and one or more other students should work effectively as a team, dividing up responsibilities, and complete lab work in a timely manner. You should be able to work effectively with students of different backgrounds and abilities.

D. Context

ability to understand your data and to report data effectively

Data are meaningless without interpretation. Understanding what your data say and, just as importantly, what they do not say, is crucial. A failure to account for a single variable in your experimental design could turn your "good" data set into a bad one. Conversely, there is often gold to be mined in a "bad" data set if it is onlyu viewed from a slightly different perspective.

The beginning student typically feels compelled to present all of his/her data in a written report. Often this stems from a belief that the instructor needs "proof" that the student actually did the required work. However, unless the data set is small and not summarized in some other form (through graphs or summary statistics), raw data are rarely reported in the scientific literature. Likewise, most of your lab instructors don't want to see your raw data in your lab reports either. Instead, you will be asked to refine your raw data into a form that is both easily understandable and pertinent to the question you are addressing. This may take the form of a graph or summary statistics. Don't clutter your otherwise polished report with a mass of raw data!

Please note, though, that the need to convert data is not a license for bad record keeping. You should always be able to produce your raw data if asked.

Note: there's also a question of economy that I'm not addressing here that you might want to (for example, making sure that figure legends complement text rather than repeat it).

ability to relate laboratory work to the bigger picture, to recognize the applicability of scientific principles to real world situations, and to recognize when seemingly minor oversights can have serious consequences

A quantitative error in determining a drug dosage can kill. If you are considering a health profession please consider the significance of misreporting a quantity by one or more orders of magnitude. Misspelling of a chemical name can change the meaning completely. You can ruin an experiment, ruin a product, and/or cause someone serious harm by mistakenly changing one letter of a chemical compound. You may not think that physics applies to real life, but consider how time and distance relationships as described by Newtonian physics apply to driving a motor vehicle.

ability to explain what is meant by the scientific method

To explain what is meant by the scientific method you need to understand:

  • the scientists' definition of theory
  • what are, in a conceptual sense, the qualities of a good hypothesis
  • the role of experimental design in testing a hypothesis
  • the definition of random error and how scientists account for it

Many people think that scientists first take a position then try to "prove" it experimentally. You need to fully understand how fallacious that conception is. How can one make a new discovery if one already thinks he/she has the answer?

E. Integration and application of knowledge/experience

ability to integrate and apply information and experience from math and science courses to current and future work

This refers to compartmentalized learning, and is one of the most critical objectives to be met. Facts, methods, and principles that you have learned in one course often apply to another course, even in a completely different discipline. You cannot fully understand the principals of chemistry without some fundamentals in physics and mathematics. All three disciplines are essential to anyone in life sciences. Coursework is arranged in separate disciplines for convenience, not because there is a real separation. Please try to retain what you have learned in each of your courses. You will need it later.

ability to apply critical thinking in the laboratory

Critical thinking in this context refers to strategic decision-making based upon observations made in the laboratory, as opposed to simple troubleshooting of experimental procedures. You need to be able to make observations in the laboratory, draw conclusions, and act upon those conclusions.

ability to recognize whether results and conclusions "make sense"

You can avoid making many mistakes by learning to estimate. Learn to determine if calculated or measured values are within a reasonable range. For example, the velocity of flight of a bird is not reasonable if it is greater than the speed of light. You should be able to understand your results and conclusions in the context of other published work.



Developed by the laboratory educators in Natural Sciences and Engineering, Rice University 11 Jul 03
(Contact: Updated 19 Jul 06