It’s been a very busy few weeks. I handed in my first lab report of the year last week, which after all the stress of trying to get it finished really feels like a weight lifted. To A level students the idea of writing a lab report might sound a bit daunting because it’s not something you really get to do in college, in fact the experiments I did in sixth form were often so basic that it seemed like a waste of time and they were purely to prepare for an exam at the end of the year. The lab work at university is a little less structured, you’re given a few questions to guide you but you’re encouraged to use your initiative and the skills you’ve been taught to get to your own conclusions and the experiments get more interesting the further on in your degree you go (no more mass on a spring!) From your lab notebook you then have to compile a report with background knowledge, graphs, discussion of results and conclusions, which has an upper page limit of 12-15 pages. Which really does sound scary until you’ve done it once or twice.
Thankfully we were eased into lab work this year by the reports being written in groups of 3 (those you do the experiments with) rather than individually. The experiment my group did this term was about coaxial cable transmission lines. We had to derive some of the equations ourselves from the theory section given to us and then follow instructions on how to set up the equipment and make measurements. When you’re in the lab there are always several PhD students about to help you when you get stuck or to check you’ve set something up right which is really helpful. The lab notebook is basically a diary of everything you do in the lab sessions. So the better the notes you make as you go along, the easier the reports are to write. After 4 sessions of 3 hours in the lab we had a week to complete the reports as a group, a much sooner deadline than we had in first year.
I think that the best thing about labs is that they use all the different skills you’ve picked up whilst at university and the lab report shows them all off in one go, giving you get a real sense of pride once it’s handed in (also a feeling of relief that it’s over). In this first experiment we had to use our understanding of AC theory, our experience of using the equipment such as the oscilloscope, error analysis and R programming skills, plus being able to write everything up in a clear and concise way. If you want to be a research scientist some day, these are all things you’ll need to be good at and we’re sure to get good at them in all the labs we have this year.