I have been a Teaching Assistant for the Food Microbiology Lab Course for the past two years (one year at NC State and one here at VT). I always assumed that the class was “hands-on”, “real world”, and “thought-provoking”, but with what I have learned this year in Contemporary Pedagogy, I realized that I wrong. Lab exercises provide instruction for students to follow and complete the work but don’t ask students to question the process behind it or innovate. The labs all relate to a specific microorganism that is isolated and grown on a nutrient agar plate. Students come back to observe these plates and record the results. Many have become so focused on the plates and worry when they don’t get the bacteria to grow as they need to. They chalk it up to failure immediately and do not consider why “X” organism may have not grown as well as it should have.
Seth Godin’s TedxYouth Talk had a part where he talked about an activity he did with people where he brought in a bunch of blocks and asked people to take four and form whatever word, sequence, acronym, etc. with them. He stated that people hated this activity because there was no one right answer. I love this statement because it means that everyone’s interpretations of what they have are different. In addition, students are “collecting” the information on the microorganism, but are not “connecting” the results to other areas. Relating this back to the class, something I’ve included in my Teaching Philosophy is:
“For students’ laboratory activities, I aim to challenge students to critically analyze their data, make conclusions, and discuss their work. There are times with lab where they do not work out as intended, and these are moments where students are asked about what could be done differently next time. It is valuable for students to realize that experiments fail and that learning from these mistakes is what matters.”
I believe that failure is okay. Innovation occurs in the fields sometimes due to failure. Yes, Food Science and Food Microbiology may be characterized as a “conservative” field due to its reproducibility, according to Edelstein’s article, but these changes through tinkering, transforming, and revising what is already there, is what leads to innovative ways of solving problems. Creativity and innovation can be applied with the help of questioning what is already out there. We can learn alongside and teach our students this intellectual process. Rather than making labs like a recipe that can be followed by every student (with hopes of reproducibility), varying and differing what is done can be beneficial.