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RR Phantom

RR Phantom

Location : Wabbit Hole
Job/hobbies : Cayman Islands Actuary

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PostSubject: Those years of learning dangerously   Those years of learning dangerously Icon_minitimeWed Dec 05, 2012 11:28 pm

THE conversation at my university went something like this: ''You have bees in cages, looks interesting; perhaps you can talk to a work experience student for half an hour.'' I responded: ''I'd much prefer to entertain the student for a day, because we do more than bees. We study the nutrition of possums and koalas, examine their faecal pellets, measure the chemical composition of eucalypt leaves and study the genetics of plants - all involving lots of field and laboratory work.''

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My colleague replied: ''That's not possible, because work experience students are not allowed to do laboratory work or field work and must always be accompanied by someone with a police clearance.''

I was angry - beyond livid! I thought back to my last work experience student, who spent a week with me some years ago. She was competent, and so I gave her a challenging project - measuring the amino acid content of pollen samples. As bricks are the building blocks of walls, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Analysing them involves many steps over several days and teaches lots of skills. It even involves nasty chemicals - strong acids. I demonstrated each step, watched her practise it and left her to finish the job.

Apart from learning to use many pieces of equipment, my student used chemistry she knew only in theory and learnt a variety of laboratory techniques including safe handling of chemicals. Perhaps best, she interacted with scientists young and old. Our week ended, late on a Friday, with a game of football and a departmental happy hour.

That is work experience and, at least in my institution, it no longer exists. Instead, students observe workers under the keen eye of someone with a police clearance. Am I going to discuss my projects with ''work observers''? No! And I encourage anyone in my position to refuse this game.

I don't dispute that real work experience has risks. My student could have blinded herself with acid, fallen down stairs while carrying glass vessels, been groped by an ageing bearded professor, broken her leg playing football and got legless at happy hour. She didn't, but no doubt these things will happen occasionally if all 16-year-olds do work experience. But is this reason for the new-found paranoia? The risk managers think ''Yes!''

The trouble is, they have not looked at the other side of the equation - the myriad benefits. Time to write the obituary for worthwhile work experience, but let's continue to promote alcohol, gambling and junk food on prime-time TV. Oh, and let's lament the shortage of scientists. Absolute madness!

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