Curly haired woman with man in glasses observing engineering machine in class

An Inside Look at College Labs: What STEM Classes Are Really Like

College labs are a special bonus when pursuing a STEM major. Here's a look at what to expect from these highly specialized academic courses.

College labs are crucial for many majors such as Science, Health, and Engineering. Labs enable hands-on experimentation to enhance students’ understanding of complex scientific course material. They also foster observational, explorative, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills. Although you may already have lab experience from high school, it’s natural to wonder what college labs will be like. For instance, will you need to dissect another animal? Here’s what to know about taking labs in college.

The importance of college labwork

It’s obvious why labs are integral to science education—you wouldn’t want to take a medication that hadn’t undergone rigorous clinical trials first, which is why testing is so important! According to the National Center for Education Statistics, health-related programs accounted for 13% of conferred degrees in the 2019–20202 academic year, equivalent to 257,300 graduates. Another 6% of college degrees were in biological and biomedical science fields. Of course, Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Forensic Science aren’t the only programs requiring labwork in college. You may be required to take a lab to fulfill a science elective, and majors like Engineering and Computer Science also spend a fair share of their time in technology labs, sometimes facilitating advanced software for companies to synthesize data and streamline operations more efficiently. Labs are also the birthplace of energy-efficient equipment for renewable energy efforts and help leaders set policy frameworks and regulations for safe drinking water with toxicology testing. All in all, labs are the best environments for innovation and discovery.

Related: How to Choose a STEM Major From All Your Different Options

What you’ll do in college labs

Professors typically supervise undergraduate science and engineering labs to ensure safety, while students at higher academic levels, such as master’s or doctoral programs, may use the lab independently. College students typically receive guided instruction during labs, although some professors may pair students and have them follow directions from a sheet of paper. College labs are designed to demonstrate your learning from previous course instruction using lab equipment. For example, dissection experiments may follow a lesson on anatomy and physiology. Students in chemistry labs might otherwise combine chemicals to create different reactions. Labs teach students to ask questions, observe small details, and seek answers through experimentation. 

Lab safety 101

Students must adhere to stringent lab safety protocols despite whatever experience they have. Even the most skilled professionals take extreme care to protect themselves, their peers, and their research from potential harm. Most often, mistakes and injuries result from human error, such as forgetting to power down equipment or not wearing the proper protective attire. As such, college students must always pay careful attention during lab courses. Colleges and universities will have individual lab protocols for students to follow. Usually, high school lab rules require you to wear close-toed shoes, gloves, and goggles. The dress code may be stricter in college, including wearing acid-proof smocks or masks. Additionally, students may not always work with a partner—a common trend in high school.

Other general college lab safety guidelines typically include knowing where emergency exits, eye-wash stations, showers, and fire extinguishers are. Although you’ll practice due diligence to protect your skin and eyes from toxic chemicals, you should remain prepared for anything. Containers should also be labeled appropriately and sealed when not in use—knocking over an open jar of liquid could cause serious harm. You should also never consume food or beverages in college labs for risk of contamination. Listen to your professors’ instructions closely and take accountability in following the procedures for optimal safety.

Related: What Makes a Great STEM Student? 5 Ways to Become One

Even those who aren’t majoring in science-, health-, or technology-related fields benefit from taking lab courses in college—and many schools require them. Students often enroll in labs for introductory biology and chemistry classes within the first two years. For some, labs offer greater insight into whether they’ve chosen the right major or can see themselves working in a lab setting in the future. Other times, college labs are a steppingstone to the world’s greatest inventions. Despite the many safety protocols to remember, labs provide stimulating, hands-on learning experiences.

Want to find a college that offers great lab experiences and opportunities to pursue undergraduate research? Check out our featured research college lists!

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Tags:

About Carolina Jacobs

Carolina Jacobs is a Managing Editor at Classrooms.com.

 

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Carlie Cadet

Carlie Cadet

High School Class of 2019

CollegeXpress has helped me learn about an abundance of scholarships available to me and my situation. I was able to do research for colleges in my best interest with your website. I've had multiple colleges email me and offer me multiple scholarships and things of that nature because of this website! Thank you so much for uploading scholarships I didn’t even know existed, even if my life took a huge turn and I wasn’t able to go to college straight out of high school. CollegeXpress helped me a lot in high school to be even more motivated to get into my dream college (which I did, by the way). I'm looking forward to using the materials CollegeXpress has kindly provided me for free to look for scholarships to help pay for college.

Mimi

Mimi

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has provided me with tips that were for college students, but as a high school junior, they were still very useful. Not only that, it also gave me an idea of what to expect when it comes to going to college or already being in college. I want to say thank you to CollegeXpress, and I hope you continue the wonderful tips until I hopefully get into college and throughout my college journey.

Katelyn

Katelyn

High School Class of 2021

CollegeXpress gave me options of schools with my major and from there I was able to pick what was most important to me in a school. Everything was so organized that I could see all the information I needed.

Emilie Delgado

Emilie Delgado

$2,000 Community Service Scholarship Winner, 2013

CollegeXpress has tremendously helped me in my search for financial aid opportunities as I enter my college career. It is easy to navigate and quickly narrowed down scholarships that I could apply for. Being awarded the scholarship will greatly help me in my finances regarding books and tuition. Thank you for this opportunity. Without CollegeXpress, it would have been more difficult to apply. I would recommend this site to everyone!

Abhishek Kumar

Abhishek Kumar

High School Class of 2022

As a high schooler, I know how hard it is to plan for college. You have to consider a lot of factors: SAT/ACT scores, college searches, scholarships, and more. CollegeXpress has been a helpful resource that solves all these problems. One can easily create a free account and search away. They help you search for scholarships and colleges, they have graduate program search, they have lists and rankings, and so much more. CX also has a lot of articles and advice to read—whether it’s financial aid, test prep, campus visits, internships/careers, or anything. Not only that, CX gives out free scholarship money to students who sign up and create a free CX account. I love CX and will continue to use it! Thank you CollegeXpress for making my college journey easier!

College Matches
X

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Bridgewater College

Bridgewater, VA

University of Portland

Portland, OR

Ohio University

Athens, OH