I have been teaching scientific laboratory courses for years. While I was an undergraduate student, I worked as a laboratory teaching assistant for Organismal Biology and volunteered for “Super Science Saturday’s” to educate youth through science demonstrations. I gradually moved on to universities that allowed me to independently instruct students in Anatomy and Neuroscience. Today, I am a part-time professor of Genetics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. I teach both undergraduate- and graduate-level students who desire to become physicians, professors and researchers. I am passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists. I love seeing those I teach get accepted into medical school or research programs and help us advance the world of science. Below is my advice for those that are mentoring students in the lab, in order for them to be successful both in and out of the laboratory, and to have a smooth semester yourself.

Top Tips for Mentoring Students in the Lab

Set goals for them

The first day of class, also known as Syllabus Day, lays down the laws of how the entirety of the semester will run. Going through syllabus regulations with them is very important. It shows them how they will be graded throughout the semester and it helps audio learners interpret the information. Here are a few good goals to set for them:

  • Expect them to be on time and participate.
  • Have assignments for them to turn in at the beginning of each class that summarizes the project you will be doing that day; this shows they are prepared for lab.
  • Allot points for these in their final grade. Make announcements using the online system your institution uses (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and ask that they regularly check these and their emails.
  • Let them know that they can ask questions if they need help and that you want them to learn something new this semester!

Figure out How They Learn

On the first day of class this semester, I drew three categories on the board:

  1.  What helps you learn?
  2.  What distracts you?
  3.  What do you hope to gain from this class?

Each student answered the questions and we discussed them together. We found out that most science students are visual learners, so I use videos and photos in my presentations and assignments. We found out that 90% of students get distracted by their cell phones. Not only did this support my “no cell phone” policy, but this allowed THEM to create the rule.

Ask What They Expect of You

You’ve already shown them the expectations you have of them for the semester by going over the syllabus. Next, ask what they expect from you on the first day of class. They want someone who checks their email and responds in a certain amount of time. They want someone who has office hours where they can come ask questions. They want grades posted in a timely manner. What else can you do to help them? Ask them.

Set Goals for Yourself

My personal goals in the classroom are being prepared for the lab session that week and a few weeks out. I make sure that supplies are ordered and that I know the experiment from front to back. I make sure my TA is prepared by sending her the protocol a week or more in advance. I set aside certain hours to grade laboratory reports and grade their pre-labs while they are working in class.

Be Strict, Be Fun

Professors are weird. I learned this in undergrad and it is one of the reasons that have driven me to become one myself. You must maintain a constant balance of saying no but being cool. I always make an announcement at the beginning of the course and in the syllabus to respect me and each other. Everyone should be listening to the opening lab discussion, not working on an assignment they forgot to turn in. No personal use of phones during the course period, if they want to use the camera to take photo of their data that is fine. Being a laboratory class, the first half hour is discussion and the remaining 2.5 hours are experiments, I let my students choose genres of music we can listen to during the long hours of experiments. This helps me learn a little about their interests and also gives them some incentive when it’s their week for background music. As Bitesize Bio suggests, laughing and learning should go hand in hand.

Practice Safety When Mentoring Students in the Lab

When mentoring students in the lab, good laboratory practice is essential. You are teaching students these skills but also protecting them from potential harms of experiments. Lab coats, goggles and gloves are a must. They now make prescription goggles for students who wear glasses. Here is a link to some top of the line products. As stated earlier, I make students turn in pre-lab assignments summarizing the project we do that day. In this assignment I have them list the chemicals we work with, the hazards and proper disposal method. My students are given participation points for each day of lab. Maintaining a clean work space when they leave and making sure all instruments are put away properly count towards those points in class.

Encourage Them

Science isn’t easy for everyone. More often than not, experiments fail. Walk students through the steps of the experiment again and see where error could have occurred. Have them turn in a rough draft of their report so that you can give them some feedback before they turn in the final draft. Give them advice on things that don’t necessarily pertain to your class but how to succeed after graduation. Many of my students want to attend medical school or graduate school and want advice on taking the GRE or MCAT. Many of them want resources to learn where to get research experience. Some of them just want to vent about how hard school is.

Tie the Material to Current Events

Read the news. Look up articles on your own and share them with the class. You can pique someone’s interest by linking current events or an interesting case study to what your topic in class is. Students also love when you talk about model organisms and then show them how those contribute to research in humans (i.e. HOX genes in Drosophila and anterior/posterior development and the mutations that are also caused in humans). Chicago is an ethnically diverse community and Roosevelt University is built on supporting diversity. I recently did a “Genetics Jobs and Your Rights” segment. Students read case studies of actual situations where people have been discriminated at school or at their job after graduation. They learned about the legalities of a company obtaining genetic information of their employee or an applicant for a position. Students learned the rights and protections they have and that their genetic basis cannot be a reason to be treated unfairly. This lesson brought the class together as a whole and taught them how to deal with real life situations. I was personally excited for this lab because it made each student feel heard.

Keep Up

Of course, it is important to stay up to date on current research. In addition to this, I highly suggest grading the homework soon after they turn it in. This prevents it from piling up on your desk and keeps the assignment goals fresh in your mind as well. Always plan your lessons out 2 weeks in advance, at least. This allows you some breathing room in the case of unforeseen events. Sometimes lab shipments don’t come in on time and you need a back-up plan. It is best to just plan ahead. Lastly, a laboratory assistant is key. Hopefully all schools offer these positions. They help you out and it also gives the student experience. A laboratory assistant gives you the time to manage the classroom and also teach students as you walk around and make sure they are on task.

I hope this article helps those of you at any level in school or your career when mentoring students in the lab. It is best to start as an assistant during your earlier years in secondary education to gain the skills and see what course best fits your interest. I wish you all the best in helping us educate our future scientists and physicians!

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