It's 7 AM. You blearily plop your knapsack onto the table, and begin removing various notebooks, tools, and writing implements. The instructor is lagging in the hall; you can smell the faintly acrid aroma of teacher's-room coffee.

You're in a laboratory class. You will be here for the next three hours, so you'd better make the best of it.

Laboratory sections of classes are common, if not universal, in science and engineering programs around the world. In most cases, lab work is cooperative -- meaning you will either choose or be assigned a lab partner or lab group. This can be a wonderful experience in which you learn cooperation and, together with your fellow future masters of technology, develop a great love of whatever it is you are doing. Or conversely, lab classes can emulate one of the outer rings of Hell. The equipment in most colleges varies from woefully substandard to cutting-edge; depending on how many large corporations have made donations to your school in recent years. In my 5 years of engineering education, I dealt with everything from fifty thousand dollar spectrum analyzers to broken oscilloscope probes and nastily stained test tubes.

Blaming the equipment is sometimes a viable thing to do if your experiment doesn't go as planned. But more frequently, a lab grade is directly proportional to the quality of the interaction between lab partners. If you have a horrible lab partner, it is likely to make your experience (and your grade) miserable. If you are a horrible lab partner, you will almost certainly end up being resented and talked about behind your back. The purpose of this writeup is to present some suggestions on how not to behave in a lab partnership, and offer some tips on how to make the lab experience better and more worthwhile for all concerned.

First of all, please, please, for the love of God and all that is holy, do NOT be like any of the people listed below! All of the examples below are from personal experience.

  • For lack of a better term, the slacker. This person simply refuses to do anything resembling work. If you split the labor with him, you can rest assured that only half the labor will get done: your half.

  • The socialite. This person will spend the entire lab period talking to her friends in the class, and possibly even helping with their experiments. You might be able to trust her to do work that is brought home, but you can forget about getting help from her while actually in the lab room.

  • The non-communicator. This person will work, and possibly even do good work. But he has his own idea on how to do the experiment and the report, and is not open to discussion, suggestions, or criticism of his ideas. He might even ignore you completely when you ask him what he is doing. If you are a lazy ass, you might think this person is doing you a favor, but of course you won't be learning anything. Why pay for a class if you're not going to get anything out of it?

  • The space case. This person is simply unreliable. She doesn't outright shirk labor, like the slacker, but she will often "forget" to come to class, and tends to leave equipment at home or in the library. If you have a lab partner like this, you will likely end up "rescuing" her on numerous occasions.

  • The Danger to Life and Limb. This ought to be obvious, but it does not make a person a badass if they decide to taste their latest chem experiment, or make themselves into the shortest path to ground potential. Not all reckless lab partners are attempting to show off; some of them are simply too excited to sit and read the instructions before diving in and starting the experiment. If you have one of these future stuntpeople as your lab partner, you might do well to start each lab session with a few minutes of going over the instructions. Don't actually take out any of the lab components or turn on the equipment until you are sure your partner has at least some idea of what NOT to do. It can be very tiring to have a partner who you feel you have to baby-sit; in this particular case, you might want to speak to your instructor. Safety ain't a joke, folks.

    Thanks to allseeingeye for reminding me about this one!

Everyone has bad days, so if your first lab session with a given partner seems unproductive or rife with conflict, you might want to give him / her another chance. Conventional wisdom says, "Talk to the teacher", but most students are not likely to do this. Many college students are insecure socially and do not want the stigma of being a "tattletale". And the sad truth is that many teachers simply don't care: they say, "You're supposed to be adults. Work it out." There is definitely a grain of truth to this. The best person to talk to a bad lab partner is you. Let this person know about their behavior. It is possible that they aren't even aware of it; they may even think you enjoy doing all the work. Not everyone is as self-aware as you are.

At the beginning of the quarter or semester, make sure you discuss logistic issues with your lab partner. If equipment is to be purchased, decide how you are going to split up the cost, and who is going to keep what when the course is over. It might in some cases be worthwhile for you both to get your own lab kit, though this can be expensive. Having my own stuff has saved my grade on several occasions.

If you talk to your partner and he / she persists in the obnoxious or lazy behavior, you are in for a fun semester. You may indeed end up doing all the work. You might be able to get your partner's attention by not putting his / her name on the report: after all, if they contributed nothing, why should they get the credit? This may not be an option in the case of the non-communicator, because you might not even see the report before he turns it in. In this case, your best bet is to be assertive: yell "HEY! LET ME DO SOMETHING ALREADY!" when your partner is hunched over the circuit like it's some kind of baby bird they're trying to save. Well, don't actually yell this, but you get the idea.

Heaven forbid, but it is possible that you yourself might be a bad lab partner. Make sure to self-observe as much as you can when dealing with others in a cooperative situation. I personally have been guilty of spacing out and forgetting a floppy disk or a notebook or some other important lab component. Nobody's perfect.

Hopefully you never have to experience a really horrible lab partner like my friend Mike, whose lab partner stopped coming to class one day because, well, he got sent to jail. But it is likely you will come into contact with one of the five evil types described above. Be aware, and try to have fun and learn something!

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