The Boring Part of Science Class

Image originally from Hyperbole and a Half
Image originally from Hyperbole and a Half

I loved science class. Throughout middle and high school, through science fairs and experiments, dissections, and lectures, Science class was my favorite. I loved balancing equations in Chemistry. Biology was fascinating because it explains how life works. Physics was math applied to the real world. (Ok, I didn’t actually like physics that much.) Science was all about exploring and observing and trying things, and I loved every part of it…except one.

The lab write-ups.

I absolutely hated lab write-ups. The pointless abstracts. The repetitive introductions. The insanely detailed and yet unclear procedures. The charts and graphs that made no sense. The point of a lab write-up, my teacher said, was to document my work so clearly that someone could come along, take my notebook, and replicate my results with no additional information. That made sense in other situations, but was pointless for mine. No one could replicate my experiment, I knew, because I was an inexperienced high school science student working with crappy and inconsistent equipment. Why bother including all the setup info when the difference could be whether I was working under the air conditioning vent? When we had to pause the experiment over the weekend and our solutions went bad? Why bother when the teacher even gave us a pass when it was clear we tried, but got insane results because she knew we weren’t working with good tools? Why would anyone even want to read something I wrote, let alone try to repeat what I did?

I hated the amount of time the documentation process required. Writing down a complete explanation for how I did something took longer than actually doing it! Yes, part of this was poor note-taking skills, and part of it was trying to avoid the work while I was in the middle of it. A large part was spent trying to figure out what the teacher wanted, whether I was supposed to demonstrate understanding of a particular concept or endorse the “right” finding. An even larger part was spent on formatting (curse you, Microsoft Word!) The largest, though, was trying to analyze and chart a mess of data into something resembling real science. (Apparently that is actual grad-level science, if the stories from my friends are any indication.) It was a frustrating process, filled with more uncertainty and exactitude than that spent on the experiment. You would have thought that the paper meant more than the science! Then again, as I learned, documentation of your experiments is what makes it science instead of entertainment.

The wisdom of Adam Savage of Mythbusters.

The need to document with pictures and explanations goes beyond high school science, as I have discovered. Far from leaving it in the lab, I keep finding that there’s a certain amount of documenting that proves useful in real life. I have been reminded twice in the past two weeks (strongly and unpleasantly) that it would have been useful to have had a portfolio of my work handy by now. I have done some vaguely interesting things, but I don’t remember the details the moment someone asks. Jobs have the same sort of “Pics or it didn’t happen,” attitude as the internet, though they phrase it as, “Please show us your detailed portfolio of everything cool you have ever done. Oh, and edit it so you have no personality but professionalism.” Building a portfolio, even just cobbling one together from previous projects, takes time. When you need something quickly, you won’t have time to build it well.

I am clearly bad about documenting my accomplishments and experiences, given that my last blog post was in May. Without it, though, I have no record of how I did something, when I did it, or if I did it at all. It’s easy to forget my own accomplishments. It’s even easier for someone else to assume that having no record means I have done nothing. So, while write-ups are not the most fun part of science class, crafting, or making, nor the easiest, they are nevertheless are a vital part of any project I hope to show the world. Here’s to writing things down.

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