in the lab

I’m in a lab quite a bit, especially this semester when I have 9 hours a week I’m assigned to this kind of instruction. In truth, I have particularly great physics majors who get paid to answer questions and debug things, so when I need to grade or clean or answer email or answer the other email or meet with a student, I can. But, I’ll inevitably get pulled back to fix the printer, answer a question, explain slope-intercept form and its use for data analysis again. It’s all good. I don’t feel like I should be leaving in the first place.

On Thursday afternoons, I have a particularly good lab aide, and I have a better than average group of students. The printer didn’t jam today, and only two of the five groups asked about measuring the slope and why and what was it supposed to be. I spent more time in lab today than I did for other sections in the week, and I got to see a lot of typical lab things. By “typical” I mean the things that are the kinds of things I see all the time, but are probably not thought of as typical in a space that’s supposed to be about rotational inertia and conservation principles.

For example, my lab aide was eating her lunch (at 2:30 PM, which goes to show the kind of abuse our physics majors endure). It was some compilation of a tub of rice, a banana, and a container of yogurt. A student also of Japanese, it wasn’t surprising for me to see her using chopsticks. I said something about admiring how anyone could use those appendages for something like rice. She pointed out that it was sticky rice, made right, lumping together on the sticks. But then I pointed out that she was finishing the portion, and picking up one grain at a time. “Oh, no, those are the sesame seeds.” Sesame seeds with chopsticks? She went on to demonstrate for a lab group that she could handle the yogurt almost as well.

Later, a student would ask me, “Why is there a swimming pool hanging from the ceiling?” I explained that it would be in the way if it were on the floor. Of course, she was curious about what a kiddie pool was doing in physics lab in the first place. “It’s what we put the corn starch in,” I joyfully proclaimed. Eventually I explained more about how we stage activities in the parks in the summer, but the conversation was especially entertaining up to that point.

A bit of a break, I was grading other labs, starting to wish I had a martini to accompany my tasks. But then a summary to one lab report broke my trance. In describing what he’d learned about physics in the previous week, a student proclaimed, “If accidents were only more consistent it would make observing things so much easier.” More profound words, intentional or not, you will not find in any other student work.

Later, the drizzle and wind outside turned to snow, heavy and thick through the air. It reminded me that I’d started riding my bike again this week, since it’s March, and the snow is done. Mostly. I went to the window, turned my back to it, and tilted my head back so that I was looking up and out toward the sky. The wet snow had reminded me of growing up in the northwest, the occasional snow that got us so excited, and periods of lying on the couch near the window to look up into the expanse of white from which the snow was born. I did the same here, and experienced that same flying up into the sky as the snow came down.

And then I went back into the lab and answered another question about slopes. I talked to my lab aide more about the chop sticks, and showed her a poem by Lawson Inada called “Eatin’ with Sticks.” (He’ll be on campus in a few weeks.) So we bridged from physics to chopsticks to poetry, with martinis and swimming pools and snowfall in between. A typical day in lab.

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