I hope everyone is having a great time back from holidays and exams. I have found that it is always slightly tough getting back into the swing of things after a long holiday and revision period – but well done! You survived and there is a whole new block of learning to look forward to.
Today’s topic is one that I have wanted to write about for a long time. Before coming to university, I definitely placed ‘Laboratory practicals’ as one of the things I was worried about the most. It was mainly because my only real experience of it was the short examined sessions during GCSEs/A-Levels and they were moderately stressful. Fortunately, you will be glad to know that most – if not all – of my previous worries about the activity have gone.
I understand that this is something that other future Biological Sciences students will think about – so I thought I should give some basic thoughts about it as it is a key component of studying the science courses here at Leicester.
What is a lab practical?
Simply put, a laboratory practical is a session that supports your tutorial and lecture-based learning by giving you real experience of research techniques. This means having the opportunity to try out previous tests and models that have revolutionised research and generating your own results. It is usually led by a demonstrator, so a lecturer or an academic within the field, and you receive your own laboratory book with all the information you need to carry out the experiments.
How long are practicals?
Compared to school where my experience of practicals were confined to twenty minute plant dissections, the practicals in my first year were longer and busier. They are generally around three to six hours but it depends on the subject. Fortunately, they do tend to be extremely busy sessions so there is always something to do even if you leave a sample in the water bath for four hours.
Are practicals fun?
Before university, I always found practicals messy and dull. I reasoned that when you are at school, the relevance of the experiments were less obvious and it was easy to feel constrained to a set of instructions. Now, I can’t say they are my favourite things about my course but I definitely enjoy them more. They are generally well-organised, there is always a demonstrator to help and there is something fulfilling about getting the petri dishes to stain well. In addition, you get a lot of independence to run the experiments and I think it is more beneficial learning at your own pace without a teacher watching your every twitch.
Unlike me who is neutral, a lot of my friends love practicals. They are a great way to round off theoretical learning and get to see science in practice. Plus, it is an easy way to find out whether a career in scientific research is for you. There are plenty of academics around to quiz and gain more insight from.
So to round it off, my message is if you are not that confident with practicals, do not worry! Not everyone who picks the course wants to be a researcher and that is absolutely fine. If you are worried, then the best thing to do is always to prepare in advance. Read your lab book, find videos of previous experiments, and try and make sure you understand why they are making you do it in the first place. There will be lots of help to hand, you will inevitably have a table full of lab-buddies to rely on, and my main tip is to make sure you always read things twice.