Lab technicians bring the excitements of science to life
Laboratory technicians are critical to a vibrant and engaging delivery of curriculum.
School science laboratories are places of wonder and excitement for students of all ages and stages. To see the dawning of comprehension as a practical application of science curriculum falls into place is exciting to see. School laboratories are places where constant change and the evolution of technology and new understandings of the natural world transform student learning.
Laboratory technicians are critical to a vibrant and engaging delivery of curriculum. Technicians have specific knowledge and skills that enhance a teacher’s capacity to enliven what some students can find “a bit dry”. If talking about forces during a physics lesson has them losing focus then taking them out on to the oval to see a metal rubbish bin ripped apart in an explosion (subject to strict risk assessment of course) with just some water and a couple of beads of dry ice gets their attention back, asking questions. Looking through a microscope at the incredible alien looking life forms found in stagnant water, gives them a chance to engage in biological concepts that are happening in many of the cells in their own bodies. The laboratory technician researches the experiments, does risk assessments, trials the experiments and often demonstrates or helps students access the activity.
IEU members, Kim Tynan and Shane Critchley, share their experiences of the complex, varied and interesting role that helps bring science to life for students.
Kim Tynan (below) is the Laboratory Manager at Carey Baptist Grammar School in Kew Melbourne. She talks of her journey to become a school laboratory technician and explains how with technology moving so quickly, challenges and opportunities abound.
“After completing a degree in Applied Science, I went onto do a PhD in plant pathogen interactions and completed research in this field for several years both in South Australia and Western Australia. I started a family and decided to stay at home while they were young. When I chose to continue my working life, part time research positions in my field here in Melbourne were difficult to find and not easy to fit around a young family, so I launched into being a school lab technician.
“Over the years the introduction of technology into the workplace has changed the way we do things, mostly for the better. We now do a lot more reporting, undertake Risk Assessments for every practical we prepare and that the students complete. Equipment audits are logged, chemical data bases updated annually. Computers have allowed these tasks to be done more efficiently and repeated easily.
“We use Pasco datalogging software and sensors for an increasing number of practical classes both for IB and VCE levels. Students are being trained in the use of these with their own laptops and we have some data recording devices. The application of this technology is amazing, and they can measure anything from the amount of carbon dioxide in a reaction chamber, the pH of a solution or the force of two objects colliding just to mention a few. We are also trying to introduce these sensors at middle school level so students and staff have a greater understanding of what they can be used for and how easy data can be collected with technology.
We find we are now required to assist more with this use of technology, especially during student design periods when it is difficult for one teacher to assist all students at once. The complexity of experiments is increasing each year which means our role has changed since I first started being a lab tech. For this reason, we need to keep up to date with the technology ourselves and how each sensor can be utilised.
“Technology has been a great leap forward for science education. Being able to couple exciting and applied contexts to curriculum has enabled classes to have great practical demonstrations and experiments – or if too dangerous YouTube clips of science phenomena.”
Compliance and the school laboratory
In years gone by there were chemicals in school laboratories that are now banned from being kept because they were considered too dangerous or hazardous to keep in the school environment.
Back in the past there were explosions and other experiments being carried out in very unsafe ways – or not being able to be run because it was dangerous Over time with the introduction of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and its attendant regulations as well as the Dangerous Goods Act and Hazardous Substances Regulations – workplaces and classrooms are much safer spaces to learn and work.
Shane Critchley (above) from Mercy Diocesan College in Coburg, Melbourne started work in 1987 and he reflects now on some of the changes the legislation has wrought on the role of the laboratory technician.
“The introduction of the Dangerous Goods Legislation and Hazardous Substances Regulations ensured that there was full compliance with the new legislation, and this involved a lot of learning and a massive increase in paperwork. A new challenge around the corner was the introduction of computers with their floppy discs, basic programs and ability to store all our files electronically.
“The ‘Internet’! What a revelation that was. Some said that it would never take off. How wrong they were. Gone were the days of recording everything with pen and paper or on floppy discs. This was now the time for Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and Risk Assessments.
As part of making school laboratories as safe as possible, risk assessments were introduced. These require teaching staff and laboratory technicians to work together to ensure that the experiment that is planned is safe for students and staff to perform. Laboratory technicians have the expertise to assist in working through a Risk Assessment that may have quite a few chemicals coupled with their reactions and the attendant risks involved.
“MSDS are records for each chemical in use anywhere in the world. Each chemical has its own international identification number and in Australia manufacturers and suppliers must produce an MSDS for chemicals they supply. These inform the production of the risk assessment and again, it is part of the laboratory technicians’ role to interpret the MSDS and educate and inform staff of possible risks.
“The changes in technology, the attendant increase in new and exciting experiments and the need for individual student-designed experiments has increased the challenges for laboratory staff.
Nowadays, the laboratory technician has to be able to prepare twenty different sets of equipment and material for student-designed investigations for each class at each year level, for every subject.
“They must try to convince young teachers that everything they see on YouTube may not actually work or may in fact be dangerous. They must know about data loggers, DNA extraction, PCR (Polymerase chain reaction), electrophoresis, spectrophotometers and more. Add to that the STEM requirements, robotics and supporting other faculties with their responsibilities under the current legislation – and it’s a rewarding and exciting role.”
It seems that as education propels forward with advancing technologies, changing compliance requirements and assisting staff in delivering a vibrant science curriculum, the school laboratory technician is a highly skilled and knowledgeable member of the science faculty and has the capacity to enhance student learning in a myriad of different ways.
Compiled by Tracey Spiel, Education Support Staff Officer for the IEU VicTas. Reprinted with permission.