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Problems with physics labs

  1. Oct 23, 2011 #1
    For the past couple of years I've been having trouble in my physics and chemistry labs. Not horrible trouble - I still get good grades and understand what's going on. But everything seems to be 10 times more painful for me than everyone else... I can figure out what should be done next, and how to do it to get the best results, but then when it comes to actually doing it I screw it up. It's not due to physical clumsiness, but more... mental?

    Normally, I forget about something, or don't do something, and then I have to start all over again from square one. I lost 3 hours on the last experiment from this; in my freshman chem classes, I was simply the one of few people in the labs because I kept having to run back for a beaker etc. And my lab partner in eventually refused to let me do pipetting because I stuck the pipet in the wrong source bottle on one occasion. (I could barely operate the thing anyway because my timing was off, but the source bottle was the final straw, I think.)

    Then, if I have a lab partner, and I'm supposed to read off measurements from something, half the time I'll say the wrong number - I'll mix it up, add a few digits, etc. I don't get such a problem when I read something off and write it down immediately (possibly because I always double check, but in general I seem to make fewer errors to begin with if I don't have to say it).

    So basically, it's been about 2 years worth of labs, and I still haven't overcome these problems, despite trying hard not to make mistakes. I'm debating on whether or not to throw in the towel now and become a theorist... I do like theory, but I hate to make the decision as I am just beginning to take upper level physics courses. Do you guys know anyone else who's like this who works in some experimental field of physics? And just gets around it through persistence? Or practice, etc?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 23, 2011 #2
    I feel for you; I had the same problem. The only advice I can give is to thoroughly read through and understand the entire procedure before the lab begins.
  4. Oct 23, 2011 #3


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    I agree with Number Line. Prepare and plan what you will do before the lab class meeting. Draw pictures and diagrams. Create a form to fill in your laboratory notebook.
  5. Oct 23, 2011 #4
    I know what you mean. I'm a "burden" to my lab partners. Most of my lab partners look at me and treat me like I'm slow or have some kind of mental problem. I had the luxury of having to guys who did all the work and I copied. But with everyone else, they just send me on errands to get supplies and I watch them do all the work. So I know what you mean, man.

    One thing with me though, I just lack some basics and fundamentals so it slows me down a lot. Like for example the pipette with reverse numbering. It starts with number 10 at the tip and 0 is all the way towards the top. Wasn't sure how to use that. I feel to embarrassed about these things so I try and play it off as if I forgot or some some mistake
    I'm better of if I work by myself, because no matter how long it takes, I'll figure it out somehow or constantly ask the TA for help until I finally get it right.

    good advice @ Number Nine.
  6. Oct 24, 2011 #5
    I never felt comfortable in labs in undergrad, but I think I am fairly competent working in a REAL lab, on my own research. I would suggest trying to get some research experience before writing off experimental work entirely. Certain people take a little longer to understand hands on work than others; in a lab you feel a lot of pressure and probably feel self conscious if it's taking you longer to understand the procedure than others. That's no environment to get used to lab work. You need to be able to mess around with all the equipment and techniques yourself without time pressure and without worrying about whether or not the hang up you are having is a stupid one.
  7. Oct 27, 2011 #6
    Thanks for the advice!

    Number Nine and symbolipoint - I suppose I do tend to rush the prep before a lab - I'll try to take my time going through things before the lab. Also, I'll try out the diagram thing if the situation calls for it - I've already done forms.

    johng23 - I think that's a big part of the problem; the amount that I screw up does seem to be directly proportional to how stressed I am. As for actually doing my own research - I tried working with this one prof for a year or two of undergrad, and I didn't seem to mess up as much. But, I really, really did not like working on that project - I got into it w/o really knowing what I was getting into and my interests lie somewhere completely else now. On top of that, I like talking to the guy, but I never ever want to work with him again for various reasons that I don't really want to get into. So, its hard to judge how much I'd like experimental work based on that.

    For the stuff I'm actually interested in, the only guy i know who works on anything like it at my college is a theoretician and does a lot of computer simulations. For the next couple of years I'll be working with him; however, whether I go for theoretical or experimental in grad school is still up in the air, probably as it should be at this point.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2011
  8. Oct 28, 2011 #7
    I always enjoyed lab time. I took all the chem, physics, computer, etc. labs I could get. I felt like I was doing something. I could see the product of my efforts. Never liked Bio labs though. Just too damn messy and the smell!

    Labs are like baking a cake or building a model airplane. Follow directions and it's hard to screw up. Clearly, you seem to have the concepts under control. It sounds more like you have an attention issue like ADD, lack of proper rest, diet, too much stress, etc... It may just be your attitude, e.g. expect problems and get them.

    When I was a TA, I found it helped to have students talk their way through the lab step by step. They get a little confidence knowing (hopefully) their lab partner will correct them before the mess up. Remember, you have lab partner and not a "worker" and a "watcher". You should be checking each other’s work as you go along. Partner!

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