Tuesday 21 March 2017


We're almost finished Food and Fermentation Microbiology aka F&F for another year. I'be been taking one section of this investigation of food-process and food-spoilage microbes for the last three years.  Whaaaa'? Who would put me in charge of a laboratory for which I have neither training nor expertise? Well The Institute would/does as part of a decentralisation policy. I think the management got tired and worried that everyone was teaching the same-old same-old despite that fact that science tends to move forward year-on-year. Another issue is the idea that IF someone dies or goes on maternity leave ANDIF there are other people who have done that person's work before THEN the students' suffering/loss in minimised. Downside is that some groups of students get an expert; while other groups are thrown on their own expertise.  I know which group has the richest learning experience!

Any microbiology course needs to use autoclaves to sterilise media. Autoclaves are potentially lethal because they heat hot viscous sticky agar to a very high temperature by increasing the pressure inside a steel bomb. Indeed we've had two blows in the last couple of years: the injuries were not life-threatening but hot and painful. It would be easier and safer if I made all the interactions with the autoclaves: if there is an accident then I take one for the team - I'm almost dead aNNyway. But that is a terrible learning experience and, with my heart in my mouth sometimes, I have appointed each of the kids in turn Autoclave Liaison Officer ALO. The ALO is responsible for loading the bomb, switching it on, screwing down the lid, timing the process, waiting until it cools down, unloading it . . . without anyone getting burned. And begob, they cannot reliably do this, they make mistakes, some of them the sort of mistakes that recently blew hot agar over two of our students and one ceiling. It could be a classic case of I taught them but they didn't learn but I think it's more that they haven't done it often enough to embed the process as a sort of muscle-memory. In F&F for example we've only had 9 or 10 media-making opportunities and I only have 9 or 10 pairs of students. Once a year isn't often enough!

I did have a cunning plan a couple of week's ago, though. While everyone is waiting forty minutes for the autoclave to heat up and cool down, I could make them all sit down and write up the Standard Operating Procedure  S.O.P. for running an autoclave. Not as good as actually using the autoclave every golldarn week but a complementary learning experience maybe. This is difficult, most people will miss out a crucial step or add one in or get them in the wrong order.

Just how hard this sort of communication is can be seen in the Exact Instructions Challenge. These are a series of vloggy films in which parents compel their children to write instructions for making a PB&J sandwich or banana split, and then carry out those instructions as written rather than as intended. What impresses me most about these 8 and 10 y.o. kids is that they have bottle. IF The Dad makes fun of their first attempt by showing how the instructions are [hilariously] not fit for purpose THEN the kid learns and goes off to have a better shot at the challenge. This iteration towards perfection is deeply scientific. Actually skip the science-puffery: it is a really useful exercise in precise communication. You'll need that in the army, on the football field, in an attorney's office, in politics, in medicine and driving in traffic.

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