In one of my earlier lives, I was a research associate for a USDA scientist in Auburn, Alabama. At the time, my husband was a graduate student in the Fisheries Department at Auburn University. I had been teaching physiology to pre-pharmacy and pre-veterinary students at Auburn, but took a chance to get a civil service rating by taking a temporary position at the nearby USDA lab. The majority of my activities related to nutrition research, specifically total body nitrogen analysis. The scientist I worked for, Dr. John Frandsen, was studying the effects of parasite loads on the nutritional needs of various experimental animals. When I took over the job, he had accumulated a backlog of research specimens to process – an entire freezer full of rats waiting to be liquified in nitric acid so their nitrogen content could be determined. His previous RA had been hampered by a lack of equipment, but a budget windfall allowed us to quadruple our processing equipment. This alone would have simply moved the bottleneck from one stage (frozen rats) to another (liquified samples), if it weren’t for one piece of high-tech equipment: a “nitrogen auto-analyzer,” which could process about 40 samples at a time without constant adult supervision. Within a span of about 6 months, we managed to slog through about 3 years’ worth of experimental subjects, allowing Dr. Frandsen to speed up submission of manuscripts for publication.
The autoanalyzer was a slick piece of work: it had a robotic arm that swung from sample vial to analysis chamber, a disc with 40 slots that ratcheted around, and a spectrophotometer that could analyze the nitrogen content of samples in the chamber. It cost a whopping ten thousand dollars (and that was in 1980). Its purchase represented a huge investment to the USDA nutrition lab, and its successful implementation was essential to Dr. Frandsen’s research, the budgetary future of the lab, and my personal prestige. To make sure we got the maximum use out of this sophisticated equipment, a 3-day training course was included in the purchase price. The USDA budget was stretched to cover my travel expenses to Tarrytown, New York, where I interacted with a team of 2 company trainers and a loosely affiliated group of technicians whose labs happened to have purchased an autoanlyzer within the same time frame that Dr. Frandsen did.
This was my first (and, so far, my only) experience with corporate training. We met in a lab at the company building, where on the evening before the first day of training, we were each given training manuals and randomly assorted into groups. We met from eight until five for three days, and we were given homework assignments every night. The training manual was broken down into the simplest of steps; the nightly assignments were clear, concrete, and circumscribed. I knew exactly what was expected of me, and I made sure I completed my assignments as thoroughly as I could. Every morning, we started with a review of the assignments, our trainers testing our familiarity with the information covered in the homework. We covered background concepts as well as technical steps. We practiced and critiqued. We debriefed and repeated. We questioned each other’s results, analyzed plans, supported decisions. Even knowing we would only work together for three days, we did not question the benefit of forming teams and working to support each other’s development of skills.
I could not, now, recall the practical information learned in that crash course. I do remember confidently running the equipment and training the technicians to run it as well. Mostly, I remember being amazed at the success of the corporate training methods. There were some assumptions made by those corporate trainers: that we all had a basic competence coming in; that we were prepared to spend the time needed to learn the techniques, and that we would in fact do our homework and come to class every day, and be attentive and participate fully in all aspects of the training. I also was impressed with the training materials: nothing was left to chance; all steps were spelled out, all processes explained in clear terms. Trainers were on task for the entire class, following a procedure that was clearly honed by repetition.
As I try to respond to the needs of my own students, I wonder if I can adopt any of the tactics used by those corporate trainers. Is it possible to spell out, step by step, what I need my students to learn? Can I convey to them the need to have the mindset to do the homework and participate fully in their training, when my course is 15 weeks interspersed by the rest of their lives, rather than three intense days? Can I get my students to see my course as a part of their professions, so that they move away from the reflex resistance of a young student and instead adopt the ‘can-do’ attitude of a productive team member? I realize I’m working with a different cohort than the one I was part of in that training class, but I’d like to think that many, if not most, of my students are as motivated to learn as I was – at least, initially. What can we do to help students start off effectively and stay on course? How can we help them develop an attitude of professional competence and cooperation? As always, I look forward to your insights!