Thursday, July 7, 2011

Toxic Lab Group; Intervene

It Summer Science Camp again, so I have had mixed groups of about 12 pre-freshman from all the institutions in the area to do a lab. I wrote about this last summer and must say that I found the institutional differences again.

But in this case I was wondering what your thoughts were as to how much a prof/ teacher is to intervene when lab groups aren't working well together.

My example from yesterday is as follows:
Group D entered and arranged themselves in the chairs and lab benches. After an intro they were asked to divide themselves into small groups or 2 or 3. In a front corner were two individuals who did not get included in any other groups. The young man, "Stu" was by appearance unattractive, socially awkward, and had some pretty "icky" habits, such as grabbing his crotch from front and back regularly. I overheard his potential partner, "Sue", an otherwise unremarkable young woman say to me and him that she would rather work alone. As we did not have enough equipment for any student to work alone, I suggested that, no, they really needed to work together, please (Intervention 1).

The lab involved something that is shared between the students' mouths and so each student was given a mouthpiece of their own. Stu set his mouthpiece down on the bench by Sue's place, and it was covered with saliva (OK, a LOT) and left a samll pool of saliva on her bench. Sue looked at me and him and declared in a loud voice, "There is SLOBBER" and then everything halted until I came to intervene with a simple paper towel wipe and alcohol spray. I assured Stu and Sue that this was no big deal, and just keep plugging along, everything is fine. (Intervention 2) As the minutes went by, Sue's body language became more and more hostile, and everything on their bench would stop as she requested more and more assistance from me to intervene with equipment and instructions instead of trying to work it out together. At one point she said "Is it normal for him to suck this bad?!?" referring to the low readings he was getting. I looked at her in the eye and said, "That's just mean."

After about 30 minutes, she stopped acknowledging his presence, tuning her back to him completely even though the equipment was in from of him, trying to do as much of the lab as she could alone. When she was snippy with me asking for help with instructions of the next step, I said, "I'll be right back".

 At this point I found the director of her program and reported that I had someone who was just miserable in the lab and was making everyone else miserable around her. The director said to send her to her office, and so I did (Intervention 3). I actually sent her away out of lab. I've never had to do that before.

I'm a little shook up by the whole incident, and ask you,

Should I have made those two work together in the first place (Int. 1)? I didn't know their history, they ma have had issues before they walked into the lab. On the other hand, the other groups were settled and it would have been a big deal (shaming for him?) to rearrange other groups to accommodate her request. On the other hand, I can see where she was coming from if she found him repulsive, BUT I assumed that "adults" could work together in a professional manner in a lab setting despite these things.

Should I have stopped everything I was doing to clean up after his mess because she was paralyzed by the body fluids on her bench (Int 2)? I do feel it is my job to look after the safety of the students and typically will glove up and take care of these things. But my perception was that part of her motivation was to get out of the pairing and/or to embarrass him. She may have been just very angry and lashed out in that manner.

Should I have removed her from the situation (Int 3)? I did not personally tell her to go take a walk. I might have done this if she were one of my regular students that I had a relationship with. Instead, I sent her to her Director. Was this cowardly? Did I just lose my temper and not try to find a more creative solution? Was I projecting my feelings of empathy with the "outsider"/ tried to protect him and therefore became too impatient with her too quickly? Was I not giving him a chance to defend himself? His reactions varied between being self-deprecating and agreeing with her to taking it seemingly in stride. Should I have just let them work it out?

Have you every kicked anyone out of your lab or class for attitude/ unprofessional behavior? What were your thoughts?


  1. These are students who are about to be freshmen in college? They should be able to work together better. I think you were right in what you did. The only thing I would have possibly done differently would be to talk to Stu about being more cognizant of how his actions effect others (e.g. he should have asked for the paper towels and alcohol himself).

    Good luck with the rest of your term.

  2. Uh... would you want to spend everyday working with a gentleman who cannot keep from grabbing his private parts and getting his bodily fluids on your bench? Unless he's got a behavioral disability (such as being on the autism spectrum), which should be explained to the woman, that behavior seems pretty inappropriate and more than that woman signed up for. If he does have a behavioral disability, then no one person should have to deal with that unless said person is trained. My husband had a miserable semester one year when he was paired with a pyromaniac. Not enough to get him to drop out the program but enough to push him well beyond the bounds of having a positive attitude towards the class.

    Perhaps next year you can assign students to groups and rotate them each day. Do it by randomly choosing numbers. That way everybody works with everybody.