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Biology department balances working and learning

Published on 29th March 2016
     Students interact and learn science from the work of other students.  This seems like a beneficial dynamic.
     Clarion University's Department of Biology and Geosciences incorporates a student worker program that is probably very similar to others across the nation.  A select few individuals who have passed initial biology courses with exceptional grades and serious interest are selected by faculty to work together and prepare lab materials for classes.  These students get reimbursed for their hard work and practical experience in their desired field, and professors in the department can then focus on their teaching at hand instead of having younger, newer faces go through the tedious preparation of materials.
     Undergraduate students (preferably one sophomore, junior and senior) who have completed the first two principles of biology classes at Clarion meet in the Grunenwald Science and Technology Center (STC) to work 10 hours per week at the prevailing student minimum wage of $7.25.
     Professors Dr. Helen Hampikian (assistant biology professor), Dr. Douglas Smith (biology professor) and Dr. Craig Scott (assistant biology professor) oversee the three students preparing their materials and those of other instructors as well.  The student workers are asked to prepare a manner of miscellaneous equipment and chemical solutions in order to create more effective instruction time for local teachers.
     Hampikian is the coordinator of these students who work as a team to compete for the top spots in their majors.  These same students are also very likely, equipped with their work experience, to be selected for department research outside of the classroom.  Depending on grants for the programs and university funding, professors and students will team up to forge their own way beyond normal curricula.
     Some would think that preparing three to four labs consistently throughout semesters would be a lot of work for three students and 30 hours of work per week.  Concerns have never been forwarded to Dr. Todd Pfannestiel, dean of arts, education and sciences at Clarion University.
     "[The students can] maximize their time with the professors," said Pfannestiel of the student worker program.
     In order to avoid overworking students preparing in the labs, teachers still join in the toil of the prep lab, often preparing their own lab cultures if the need arises.
     If a student ever thought they were being treated unfairly, there is a strict process in place to take care of concerns internally.  The student in question would first bring up the issues to the chairperson of the biology department.  If it was not resolved with that first step, then Dr. Pfannestiel himself would hear any complaints, concerns or questions regarding the student worker initiative.
     No serious problems have been brought to the attention of Pfannestiel though.  "I think [the program] is working fantastically," he said.
     Both this spring and last fall, the students adequately prepared for two general microbiology course labs every week.  Last semester, they were also sometimes in charge of preparation for an immunology lab and a course in cell biology.
     Now, students have switched out immunology prep for pathogenic microbiology.  Once this spring, the students were extra busy with an unexpected work load of preparing materials for principles of biology II labs.  This created a busier week than usual for the students, and if they wanted to get compensated for extra hours, they had to inform the appropriate supervisor to be compensated.
     University policy allows students to work a maximum of 20 hours per week, so as long as the workers communicate with their superiors, payment is not a problem at Clarion's STC.
     As the professors involved in the program evaluate the student worker initiative and assess the operations of labs, they are currently discussing the possibility of adding a fourth student worker to the prep cycle.  As of March 2016, they have not made a concrete decision about recruiting more help yet.
     Also, some professors handle ordering the preparation of their needed materials differently.  Some will request work on the docket at the beginning of a semester while others will file requests of the student workers as needed.  It is being discussed whether it should be expected of professors to have their orders ready on day one, so incoming student workers can be fully aware of their expectations too.
     According to anonymous student worker accounts, work in the prep lab is going smoothly.
     "I can't thank them enough," said Pfannestiel.  "[The prep lab] is the staging area; the people behind the scenes."
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