How valuable are lab tours for getting undergraduates excited about STEM?

This summer, I’ve been involved in several efforts to recruit students to STEM. For one of these events, I have a total of three hours to introduce incoming freshman to Biology at Michigan (in all its varied forms), to try to make them feel more connected to campus in general and biologists on campus in particular, and, ideally, to get them to consider working in a lab next year. That’s a tall order!

For the first hour, I plan on having a few people give talks that highlight some of the breadth of biology-related research that is done on campus – while realizing that it is hopeless to really try to span that breadth with just four talks, and biasing things a bit towards applied topics, which I think incoming students tend to find more engaging. For the second hour, I plan to have a panel made up of current students. We’ll also have two Program in Biology/Neuroscience Advising Coordinators there, since they will be best equipped to answer questions about the nuts-and-bolts of the different major options.

For the third hour, though, I’m torn. The model that the other departments will use will be to do lab tours during this hour. And that was initially my plan. But then I started to wonder if something focused more on Grand Challenges in Biology* might be more fun and a better use of time. Part of the issue is simply the logistic one of the biologists being spread out across several buildings, so there would be as much time spent walking between labs as there would be touring the labs. Another part of the issue is that I feel like it gives a biased view of biology in general and ecology in particular – watching someone work at a computer isn’t very exciting, so we tend to skip the computational labs, and it isn’t possible to take people to the field during a 10 minute tour. It’s also possible I have physics envy after hearing the physicists talk about which labs have the best lasers for tours!**

This all has me wondering: has anyone studied the effect of short lab tours on recruitment efforts, comparing them to other potential activities? Are they effective? If anyone knows of such studies, I would love it if you posted a link in the comments!

Anecdotally, students sometimes do seem really excited by the tours. I know for other programs that have done something similar, the lab tours were listed as a highlight by some students at the end of the event. But how many of them would have been engaged by sitting down in a small group with faculty and talking about the most exciting areas of current research? And what makes for an engaging lab tour? Presumably some depends on the person leading the tour, but I’m guessing the topic of research in the lab matters, too, as does the presence of fancy equipment (or at least something fun — we stored our kayak in the lab at Georgia Tech, and visitors always loved seeing that).

For my part, I never did one of these short lab tours as a student. I did have the very good fortune of being on a tour of Cold Spring Harbor Labs with just a few other students, when I was a senior in high school. It was a pretty long tour, and really exciting.*** I also remember, when I started at Cornell, doing a freshman research experience that involved spending one evening in a plant biology lab, attempting to give plants tumors. But that was 2-3 hours on its own, not a simple 10 minute tour. And, while I thought it was interesting, I’m not sure it had much of an effect on me beyond me getting a plant for my dorm room.

Over the years, I’ve given several short tours of my lab to various groups of students. I show them some Daphnia, talk about what we do and why it’s important, and answer a few questions. But I never feel like it’s that engaging. Perhaps that’s a sign that I’m doing it wrong? I may be biased by lab outreach things we do where we have students sample lakes and look at plankton — those are really fun and exciting, but also generally with a younger group of students, and right on the dock of a lake.

If given a choice between short lab tours, grand challenges in biology, or something else, what would you choose? Which do you think is most effective at engaging undergraduates? And, again, if anyone knows of research on this area, I would love to hear about it! And, if you’ve given these tours or taken them: do you think they’re effective? What do you think makes them more likely to be effective?


* I’ll have a follow up post on this general topic next week. I recently did an event with this format, and thought it worked really well. The challenges I talked about were linking genotype to phenotype (and figuring out how environment influences that link) and about understanding biodiversity.

** Then again, one of the speakers in the first hour, Micaela Martinez-Bakker, will talk about how ecology can inform disease eradication efforts, so perhaps we can just use this recent xkcd to recruit people to biology!

*** We were supposed to meet with Watson, too, but he was at a funeral. We did get to sit in his office, though, which I thought was pretty cool.


Postscript: After writing this post, I had a different meeting where we were discussing plans for a recruitment weekend for grad students. The topic of whether to do lab tours came up, which I found amusing. Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether they’re valuable. In this case, the issues are a little different — we aren’t trying to get the students interested in EEB or Biology, but rather to convince them that Michigan is a good place for them to be a graduate student. And they’ve almost all already worked in a lab, so there isn’t the gee-whiz-I’m-in-a-lab factor. But we still tend to feature lab tours with these things. So, I will extend my questions above to ask if anyone knows of literature related to grad-recruitment, and what practices are most effective (including for students from underrepresented groups).

12 thoughts on “How valuable are lab tours for getting undergraduates excited about STEM?

  1. I’ve wondered this too, and I show prospective students my lab even though it has a distinct lack of flashy, fun equipment (well, unless you count the Foosball table). And yet I claim we do good science there. I avoid bringing campus tours in, because students just coming in (or choosing majors) are probably not well equipped to figure out how the look of the lab translates to how interesting the science is! For grad students, it may be more about showing them the community they’ll fit into and access to resources they’ll need, and less about the lab, per se?

    • Ooh, a foosball table! That’s fun. For people choosing majors: do they go to other people’s labs, or do you do a different activity with them?

  2. Hmm, I wonder if you’re worrying too much about one little thing Meg? I’d think that either one could work just fine. And not every decision can be data-based. 🙂

    Personally, I do think you want to show them a lab or two, for the gee-whiz-I’m-a-real-lab factor. As long as you can show and tell them *something* interesting during the lab tour, I’d think it’d be fine. Doesn’t have to be high tech gear. If they’re in an ecology lab, whoever’s giving the tour surely has some good field work stories, or some pictures from the field, or can show them a cool organism (that’s what I’d do if they visited my lab–put some cool protists under a scope for them). Heck, even a computational lab could show them a cool simulation or something.

    Perhaps you could combine the lab tour and Grand Challenges if you picked the right couple of labs? Take half an hour in each of two labs, combining a short “here’s where the sciencing happens” look round the lab with a 20 min.-or-so chat about some grand challenge in biology, to which the lab’s work relates? If you went with that model, I’d think the student-faculty interaction would be the key. They’ll have already had an hour of listening to research talks, you wouldn’t want the third hour to turn into more of the same.

    • Me, worry too much about a little thing? Never! 😛

      I feel like this is something we do enough of that it would be really nice to have data. But maybe it doesn’t exist.

      I agree with your point that, if they’ve been sitting and listening for a while, the lab tours might be a nice change of pace.

      • I suppose if you’re really keen to have data, you could generate it. Randomly assign students to either get lab tours or Grand Challenge discussions; repeat for several years. Track what they decide to major in.

        Or since that would take a while and be a lot of work, maybe just go with your gut. 🙂

      • I am seriously tempted to do this, but recognize that taking on another project right now might not be the best idea!

  3. Tours are good. They are tangible. Best when the students can talk to someone like themselves in the lab. Fewer or even only one lab is best, with all the people in there primed to tell the big questions they are asking and how they are answering them. For the field biologists, maybe take them to the herbarium or outside? Important to have those people like themselves to talk to, so small groups.

  4. Re: recruitment weekends for grad students, surely the most important thing is to give them time to talk one-on-one with faculty and grad students in the labs of personal interest to them? And maybe also show them facilities that many of them are likely to use (greenhouses, etc.)?

    But then, I wouldn’t know. We already established in an old post that I’m weird for never having experienced a grad student recruitment weekend from either the student or faculty side. 🙂 I’ve done nothing but one-on-one visits (which I still think have much to recommend them).

  5. If the purpose is to inspire “gee wiz, science is cool!” then I don’t think a biased sampling of labs is necessarily a bad thing. I give a lot of these sorts of tours to early undergrad and below and almost always get very strong engagement. In my specific case as a microbiologist, I have the advantage that you can visually see our microbes on their ant hosts and so it makes microbiology and symbiosis easier to grasp then from just looking at Petri dishes. So I think it only makes sense that I lead the outreach charge in my department.

    Interestingly, someone nearly always notices our lab server on the way to see our ants (and if they don’t, I point it out) which lets me talk about our computational work too. And there is definitely a type of student who is much more interested in this than the organismal biology I otherwise highlight.

  6. I would say that you need *something* in there that isn’t sitting and listening to someone talk. 3 hours is a long time. (People have 45-minute attention spans tops.) And so some active participation of whatever time is essential. Lab tours could do this. The ones I remember as interesting as a grad student were tours of the collections — mammals, fungi, birds, etc. Real things to see, not just a bunch of computers (yawn).

  7. Pingback: What are the top 5 “Grand Challenges” in biology? | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Pingback: Birthday reflections on blogging | Dynamic Ecology

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