Lab overtime

Adding Up

I was looking through possible upper-division courses in electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, to fulfill my last minor requirement when I found a class that immediately caught my attention.

Electrical Engineering 123, “Digital Signal Processing,” seemed like the perfect class. I was really interested in learning how to process signals on a computer. As I was debating whether to sign up for the course, I noticed an unexpected surprise: The lab component was only one hour a week! Immediately, I enrolled.

But when the semester began, I quickly realized the problem: Although the scheduled lab time was for one hour, the labs themselves would take much longer than that.

My weekly lab became an hour where I would try to ask my GSIs as many questions as possible — not a time for me to actually complete the lab. Scheduling times to work with my lab partner outside of lab, lectures, homework and extracurricular activities became difficult and made the assignments less enjoyable.

I thought about how much easier my life would me if my lab was scheduled for a longer block each week, so I could complete the entire lab at once.

Labs are often an integral part of the STEM experience at UC Berkeley. Over the past four years, I have taken many courses that included lab components in several different departments. And one of the confusing things about labs is that the scheduling differs by department and course.

When I took Chemistry 1A, “General Chemistry,” freshman year, the course was three units, while its required lab was counted as a separate one-unit course to be taken concurrently — so at the end of the semester, I received two separate grades. Other courses I’ve taken have their labs integrated into a four unit course and count for a percentage of the course grade, instead of as a separate class.

Many courses schedule labs in long blocks, like my three-hour chemistry lab. As a freshman, missing breakfast to complete my lab was not ideal. But when lab was over at 11 a.m., it was really over for the week.

Having a class where labs were largely expected to be completed outside of lab time changed my perspective on what an “ideal lab” would be.

I call labs are designed to take longer to complete than the weekly scheduled lab time “underscheduled” labs. And they’ve been something I’ve come across in a few electrical engineering classes.

Not only does this force students to find time outside of class to finish the lab, but students no longer have the benefit of accessing TAs and GSIs as they do during scheduled lab time.

For me, having course staff available during lab is crucial. Many of my lab assignments involve using new equipment or practicing lecture concepts for the first time. When I have to largely complete lab assignments on my own time, I am more apt to rush and complete them incorrectly — leading to confusion on key concepts.

As a freshman and sophomore, most of my lab classes created assignments designed to be completed in the time the lab was scheduled. While I often was tired of sitting in three- or four-hour labs, I realize now the benefits of being able to finish my lab during the scheduled class time.

Creating a deceptively small lab block for a course is definitely more appealing to students looking at potential schedules on CalCentral. But that is because students are probably assuming that those labs are designed to be shorter.

I was surprised in EE 123 when the length of my labs and the length of my lab block did not match, and it became a weekly challenge.

Many STEM departments require at least a few classes with a lab component. Labs can be very interesting, but they do place extra burdens on students. Designing labs that can actually be completed in the scheduled lab block would be a great step for the STEM departments to make on behalf of its students.

I always find my lab assignments to be an interesting challenge, but when my lab section is over for the week, I want it to really be over — or at least until next week.

Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.