The Voice: Winter 2002

The Voice

Natural science majors get plenty of hands-on experience before they graduate

Brent Philipsen, a recent graduate, has worked as a chemistry lab assistant since his sophomore year. by Sally Jongsma

Each semester more than two dozen students assist their professors in the natural science division. In the process, they earn money, gain experience, expand their resumés, and learn their subject matter better.

Each department in the division hires its better students to serve as assistants. The number of students involved and exactly what they do varies from one department to the next, but most have similar responsibilities: they serve as lab assistants, hold problem solving sessions, grade daily assignments, or tutor other students. In chemistry, most student assistants help supervise labs, since so many science majors require introductory chemistry classes. They answer questions, help other students with experiments, and grade lab reports. They also prepare chemicals for the labs, set up equipment, grade classroom homework, and lead weekly help sessions.

Most biology student workers also serve as lab assistants. Although Dr. Delmar Vander Zee is present in his labs to interact with students while they are working, he says that student assistants are invaluable for helping individuals or small groups of students progress through the lab. Assistants also get instruments ready, stock chemicals, and prepare specimens and cultures for experiments. And they hold evening review sessions before quizzes, tests, and exams.

Most mathematics assistants are graders. Although professors grade the tests, the assistants grade most daily assignments. Since professors could not keep up with grading all daily assignments for several classes, they provide an answer key to a course grader. Their work not only helps faculty, but also helps students in the class have a better sense of how they are doing as they go along. Secondary education math majors often serve as tutors for ASK 50, a course designed for students who enter college without having met all mathematics requirements.

Student assistants in other departments such as physics, agriculture, computer science, environmental studies, and engineering perform similar tasks, but may also have other responsibilities. Ag students work at the Agriculture Stewardship Center. An engineering student is currently learning a new software package to see if it will be helpful for the department to order. Environmental studies assistants may, among other things, drive a van for field trips.

Students are expected to take responsibility, but are also given direction by their professors. Dr. Arnold Sikkema, who teaches physics, has his lab assistants do the lab in advance of the class and set up equipment for the session. But Sikkema also meets with them to help anticipate difficulties that might arise during a lab. He sometimes assigns additional reading so the assistants are very familiar with the subject, and he gives them guidelines for what to do and what not to do so they are not caught off guard or unable to help students having difficulty. Although Sikkema comes in and out of the lab throughout the afternoon, assistants are responsible for much of the session. Assistants not only answer questions, they also ask questions of students to make sure they understand what is going on.

Chemistry Professor Carl Fictorie has compiled a forty-page training manual for his lab assistants that spells out many of their duties and the procedures they must follow. The chemistry department also holds a training session at the beginning of each year and, like physics, holds weekly meetings to discuss upcoming labs.

Mathematics professors meet with their graders early in the semester to help them know what to look for and how to assign points to problems worked. The professor not only provides a key of solutions for each assignment, but also confers regularly with the grader.

Obviously student assistants need to be carefully chosen. Most professors begin by looking at students who do well in their courses. They look for people in their major or a related major who have taken the course they will be assisting with and for people who seem to have a good understanding of the subject.

“It's very informal,” says Fictorie. But the effort to find good assistants is worth it since many continue as lab assistants through college.

Agriculture Professor Duane Bajema says he looks for people who have good communication and organizational skills as well_and people who will follow through on assignments.

It's not always easy. In engineering, finding assistants is sometimes difficult, says Dr. Doug De Boer, since many seniors work part-time in off-campus jobs. “Often the department cannot find all the people we want,” says De Boer. But working as a student assistant benefits more than professors.

“Teaching is always the best way to learn material,” says Sikkema. He's convinced that his assistants learn their subject much better than they would if they didn't have to present it to others.

“I find that every year I learn new things as I teach_even in courses I've taught many times before,” he says. Junior Pam Vandermeer from Calgary, Alberta, who plans to teach physics and science in high school, is one of Sikkema's lab assistants. She says that the content of courses she's already taken doesn't just lie dormant in her mind because she is pushed to find new and understandable ways to explain it to others.

“I get to take part in and guide students in their discoveries. It gives me ideas and a glimpse of what I might be able to do in the future in my own classroom to explain different ideas.”

Senior Tricia Van Dyk from Sioux Center also enjoys being a lab assistant. “The best part about it is being able to be a part of the learning process,” she says. “Sometimes I have the privilege of explaining something in a way that allows them to understand it for the first time.”

Fictorie adds, “By having to explain to students who may not understand a concept, the student assistant develops skills of speaking clearly, articulately, and briefly.”

De Jong feels that his student graders benefit by getting a better sense of what can go wrong in doing problems. As they tutor, they must try different ways of teaching and explaining to get students to understand a concept. For future teachers, seeing where students have difficulty in understanding certain topics and concepts is invaluable.

The list of benefits can be even longer. Such “soft skills” as reviewing literature, managing a schedule, and ordering supplies are also important_and marketable, too, says De Boer. Chemistry Professor Ed Geels adds that professors get better acquainted with their assistants, which usually results in better letters of recommendation for jobs or graduate school.

But student learners benefit, too, Bajema points out. “TAs empathize with other students and can often communicate at a level that helps learning. It seems easier for a student to ask a fellow student for help.”

Vandermeer believes that having someone relatively close in age assist and encourage students to do their best is a good thing.

But despite all of these practical benefits, Van Dyk sums up why she enjoys the work she does: “No matter how much someone thinks she hates physics, when she understands something new, it is exciting.”