Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bad Lab Procedures and Bad Science

The above picture is used by my university (the one which decreed that there shall be no new geology majors) as one of the banner pictures for its website. Basically, this is a picture which is supposed to make prospective students want to come to our school. Well I have a problem with this.  First off it has been a while since I took chemistry, but I can’t think of a chem lab where we used a solution that looks like this. I might be wrong; it might be a copper solution of some kind.  However, I think this is the Chem lab for non-majors and that is water with blue food dye or this was a faked, thus staged picture.
Now I could be wrong, however there is something else missing from this picture which leads me to believe that it is not a representative of someone practicing real science. I blocked some of the face to hide this person’s identity (I don’t know who this is and I didn’t ask for permission so I’m covering my bases), however I believe you can tell what is missing here-SAFETY GLASSES! This person is totally exposed if something goes wrong with this reaction. Thus either this is a fake or this person (and whoever is watching the lab) has no clue what they are doing.
In the interest of being thorough, I will discuss both situations. If this picture is a fake, this makes the school photographer ignorant and lazy. There is no other way to put it, there are several labs a week happening, each doing very interesting things; instead, based off of this assumption the photographer decided to take a “science-y” looking picture and call it good. Why not go into an upper level chemistry (or geology) lab and take a picture of the students using the advanced (and really cool looking) equipment while wearing proper safety gear? It would have looked better and the picture wouldn’t scream BS to everybody who saw it and knew what actually happens in a science lab (including most High School students, the people this picture is trying to appeal to).
However, what if this is actually a class and that is water with blue food dye in it? I’m ruling out the chemistry classes for science majors.  We always had to wear safety goggles and the Professors and TA’s were very insistent about that (as they should be). That means this is a Chem 113 lab designed for non-science majors, and college students are performing a lab best reserved for Junior High students at the oldest! I have a feeling that this might be the case, as I have talked to some professors and they have said they feel the need to dumb down the courses to make sure that the art and communication students understand it (the professors didn’t single out those majors I did). The problem is the students in those classes don’t understand science, they just pass easier classes. Now here in lies my problem with the system. All majors take the same introductory English classes including English majors.  The same is true with introductory history and history majors, political science and poly sci majors.  If you took Intro to business as an elective, you would take that class with actual business majors. In no other subject at this university are you told that you don’t need to know the basics that is required of the majors.  In effect you are saying that these classes are too hard for the average student. I call BS on that. It is ridiculous that we think science is ‘too hard’ for most students; science is the building blocks of our society. Everything we do and everything we interact with relies on the body of knowledge and techniques that have been in development since Galileo. And the ignorance of these students is shown.  This is a very conservative area, thus this university has a tremendous amount of Climate Change-deniers and creationists. However, conservative doesn’t mean stupid and ignorant, one of my good friends is pretty conservative and is a biomathmatical researcher (as an undergrad, the boy is smart), but science is never really explained to these students so they have no reason to trust it, so they live in a magical world where they can turn on the lights but have no idea how they turn on.
I am aware that some, if not most, students come to this school unprepared to take these ‘tougher’ science classes; however that should not stop them from getting to them eventually. When a student comes to college, if they are in need of immediate English, Reading, or Math, they take remedial classes, classes for no credit, but they are required for that student in order for them to advance to actual college level classes. Why not have remediate science classes in the same vein as those other subjects? Students shown in need of basic science education could be placed in the classes where they could learn about the scientific method, atomic theory, cellular theory, basic Newtonian mechanics (sans most of the math just the concepts), evolution, and in general be brought up to the national standards expected of High School graduates.
The point of a traditional liberal education is to become familiar with a wide array of subjects.  I have credits for everything from Introduction to Literature to Comparative Government to US and World History and those classes would be the same as was required for the majors. However, if you live in a First World country and you do not understand science, you do not understand the world you live in. It is absurd to use a smart phone without understanding radio waves or how computers work, or to use an antibiotic other than Penicillin without understanding evolution. College is the last opportunity most of these students will have to understand science and if they leave ignorant, we know that ignorance will be twisted into a rope that someone will lead them around by. Be it a politician, cult leader, new age guru, or unscrupulous business owner, if you do not know how the world works someone will use it against you.

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
Carl Sagan

However, I would like to say there is a good banner photo of science on the school site:

Well, you can’t tell what the students are doing, but that skull makes the picture looks awesome!

1 comment:

  1. So true. I have a double major in electronics engineering tech and computer science at ENMU. I understand they once offered physics degrees, which is what I wanted, but since I want to get into quantum computing someday I figure I'll do the CS and electronics thing here, then physics at NMT. Good to have a solid background in all of the above for quantum information physics. The engineering program is actually not all that bad, though it could be so much better. A few of the last eet grads have gone on to Tech or been hired at Lockheed or one of the companies on the base. CS is a joke, but it might just seem that way because I am an older (thirties) student who has already been working with computers for over a decade.

    I can't believe they ditched geology. My stepdad had a masters in geology from UTPB, and he never had lack of work. And that was UTPB, arguably one of the crappier schools in west Texas. But yah with the oil industry, how can they not offer geology? Oh but I guess you can get an archaeology degree. wow.

    Anyways I look at it as being a decent and cheap jumping-off point to go study at a good university. Shame, because it has the potential to be a great university.