Teaching Methods Versus Technology In Environmental Analysis

Working within laboratory conditions requires that certain protocols are adhered to such as keeping an area sterile and conducting work in a routine manner so that the work can be replicated by a third party. In the world of scientific research, many years worth of research can be discounted for being invalid based on bad laboratory techniques.

All actions and observations need to be logged and every result accounted for. The research scientist has to be methodical, precise, and overall, patient. When working on a research project it is essential that high quality and well calibrated equipment is used; making sure that a spectrophotometer is from reputable dealer could be essential if you want to be taken seriously. A spectrophotometer is used in many scientific fields of study, and is the first piece of equipment a budding researcher may be taught to use.

Spectrophotometers are a type of photometer that measures light to determine the components in a compound and are used in life sciences, physics and chemistry as well as many other applications. Its introduction into the laboratory has seen the demise of many more observation based techniques in the fields of research.

Back in my days of being an environmental science student I had to use many different pieces of equipment but I was also taught the basics of sampling, how to analyse data and I prevent contamination of samples. These were considered standard components of a developing science and both old and new methods complemented each other , combining to give sample data.

Because I had chosen to study Environmental impact, we had a wide range of substances that we had to learn to test and monitor. Terrestrial science met with aquatic studies, botany met with forestry and biometric studies brought it all together in one big statistics frenzy. The interesting thing about choosing to study the environment was that it contained the whole environment. Cause and effect, chain reactions, intentional and unintentional interference and impact; it all had to fit into the subject somewhere.

Becoming a jack of all trades in environmental monitoring meant becoming an expert on all monitoring equipment. Everything from a Lux Meter to a Geiger counter were to be my tools over the years and because we were learning to use new technologies instead of observational methods it was essential that we used the best equipment we could afford. One of the most universal of all tools was the use of a spectrophotometer.

This instrument was used to determine all sorts of parameters in many substances. We spent a module analysing soil samples with the aid of mass spectrometry to determine the composition. Having such sophisticated equipment at my disposal was quite novel having just come from an agricultural college that didn’t have the funding to buy high end equipment. At college we had learned a rather old fashioned method of soils analysis.

To determine the composition of a soil and record a result of the proportions of silt, sand, clay and chalk we went through a questionnaire based on first hand observations of the sample. By rolling, squeezing and crumbling the soil it was possible to estimate the quantities of each component, but ultimately we were encouraged to take the plunge and perform the ultimate test – to eat a small sample of the soil.

The mouth is a much more sensitive area than our hands, and it is easier to pick up on the subtle differences within a soil sample. I am not sure that this method would allow results to be admissible within an experiment in this day and age, but out in the field when conducting preliminary tests, it is certainly a valuable method to have learned.

Much of this low tech data gathering has been lost in the wake of the technological advancements in science equipment. Back at the turn of the last century researchers didn’t have environmental science equipment to support findings. It was all quantifiable methodology and data logging, which incidentally has also become a techno-science in itself. Data loggers provide a way to accurately measure and store measurements and results without the hard work of older methods used by researchers.

We didn’t have access to such equipment in my day, but I believe the introduction of high tech lab equipment is to the researcher’s advantage. By allowing well calibrated science instruments to do the basic measuring, the grey matter of the well calibrated cerebellum of a hardened researcher can concentrate on what matters most; creative thinking backed by undisputable scientific data.

Dom Donaldson is an environmental researcher.
Find out more about Jenway and environmental analysis equipment for scientific research at Keison.

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