Course Design – The value of online lab course materials (college version)

As a graduate student, I was assigned the TA job for an introductory course in geology. I really like physical geology – its the course where you get to look at all sorts of rocks and minerals, learn about specific gravity (a favorite of mine) and other physical characteristics, and maybe some introductory geology. Sounds like fun, right?

Why yes, I was that kid who collected gravel from parking lots. My church had some nice white limestone with pyrite in it. Don’t worry, I’ve stopped. Mostly.

Imagine my surprise when my top-tier geology program was running their labs for undergraduates by requiring students complete exercises from a widely published manual, but with only a few manipulatives, like specimens! Rather than looking at rock and mineral specimens, we used a book with pictures in it (with no scale in the pictures). How are students supposed to learn to identify rocks and minerals by using pictures? What about luster? What about turning it around in your hand to look at cleavage of a mineral? What about heft? What about process skills like using a hand lens?

I tried to help my students out by making answer sheets for them so they didn’t have to tear up their pricey manuals, but it wasn’t enough.  They didn’t like taking that lab and I didn’t like teaching it.

A couple quarters later, I found myself offered the head-TA spot for this course for a faculty member I knew well. I told him that I thought we could do better… and asked if I could rewrite the labs. He said yes! (I do recognize that good k-12 teachers do this all the time. Frequently, college lab TAs don’t get that kind of freedom.)

There were things that definitely needed changing.

1.  We needed to abandon the lab manual.

2. We needed to use hand samples! (This meant cleaning the supply closet. Repeatedly.)

3. We needed to rewrite the lab exercises.

4.  We needed to publish the labs for students.

Over the course of the quarter, I worked with this faculty member to create labs that complimented his lectures, and emphasized hands-on skills that couldn’t be taught any other way.  He wrote a couple new labs too – and we did wet chemistry to look at water quality on campus – definitely not an experience students using the manual ever got!

The most useful thing I learned through this process was how handy it was to distribute course materials online.  Because I was producing full labs as the quarter moved along, we could not publish the labs as a manual in advance and put it for sale at the bookstore. I also could not afford to make copies of each page for every student (I wrote introductions as well as instructions and answer sheets).

We compiled a terrific website for the course – not only was each lab activity posted, but also notes, homework, and even podcasts of the lectures (courtesy of the faculty member).  There was a student hospitalized for a couple weeks that quarter, and geology was the only class he didn’t have to drop – he just followed along with the podcasts and online homework submission.

Through my time as a graduate student I had the opportunity to be head-TA for this course many times, and each time it got a little better and we could change it to fit the emphasis of different faculty members.  What students loved best?  I like to think they liked the hands-on part of the labs, but they didn’t know it was ever any other way.  Every quarter I got comments about the online manual – they could just print it out (on campus if needed! no forgetting your manual at home!) and it didn’t cost more than the cost of printing.

This was a great model for us, and reflecting back on it, I’m hoping to develop more course materials online for my students. I’m still in the research stages of how to do this best (I get twitchy about protecting copyrights), but I would love to see your comments on this!

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