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Home » Clarion » 2013 » March 2013 » In Science Lab, Learning by Doing

In Science Lab, Learning by Doing


[Click here to learn more about the campaign to repeal Pathways.]

BCC student Doreen Ascatigno watches Esther Ross (left) use a sphygmomanometer and a cardio-microphone to measure Yeancarla Liriano’s blood pressure.

“What is systolic pressure? What is diastolic pressure?”

“What are Korotkoff sounds?”

“Is blood pressure higher at the top of your body or the bottom?”

Standing at the front of a laboratory classroom that contained several human skeleton replicas as well as an assortment of plastic body parts, BCC’s Nikki McDaniel walked her 22 students through the basics of the human circulatory system and how to measure blood pressure.

“Does everybody follow me?” McDaniel, an associate professor of biology, asked, toward the end of her 45-minute talk.

Now in their second semester of introductory anatomy and physiology, most of the students in the room cautiously nodded their heads or raised their hands.


For McDaniel, that was the signal to go from talking about science to doing it – an option that could disappear from future introductory science courses at CUNY, under changes to the general education curriculum mandated by Pathways. McDaniel took out several small boxes containing stethoscopes, sphygmomanometers and cardio-microphones and placed them on the black laboratory table in front of her. The students were tasked with measuring blood pressure three different ways:

  • By wrapping a sphygmomanometer, or inflatable cuff, tightly around a subject’s arm and then slowly deflating it, while listening through a stethoscope to learn at what pressure blood resumes flowing through the constricted artery.
  • By following the same procedure but with a cardio-microphone placed in the crook of a subject’s elbow and linked to a computer.
  • By measuring the pulse in the subject’s finger.

The class divided into groups of four in which each person in the group had a specific role – Manager, Computer Geek, Go-fer and Subject. In addition to the three different types of blood pressure measurements, students were also asked to measure the blood pressure in their subject’s arms when held at different heights. Their results underscored the point that blood pressure is lightest at the top of the body and heaviest at the bottom.

Student Goals

“If you tell them blood pressure is highest at your feet, they will try to memorize that and half of them will get it wrong,” McDaniel said. “But if they conduct the experiments and do the measurements, it sticks.”

Most of the students in the McDaniel’s class plan to study in the allied health fields – nursing, radiology and nutrition, among others. In previous lab sessions, they had done cheek swabs and dissected sheep hearts. They set to work eagerly while McDaniel walked around the room briefly dropping in on each work group.

“I’m there to help them over specific hurdles,” McDaniel told Clarion. “In a good lab, I shouldn’t be doing much talking at all.” A lab session is going well, McDaniel explained, “when the students start to turn to each other and begin dialoguing among themselves.”

For Esther Ross, the lab marked the first time the pre-nursing student had handled a stethoscope. As the Go-fer, she wrapped the cuff around Yeancarla Liriano’s arm and inflated it.

“She was holding it in an uncomfortable way, and then she got the hang of it,” Liriano said, rubbing her arm gingerly and laughing.

“I got the experience and now I can do it,” Ross said.

“In order to have an experience, we had to work together,” added Marilyn Navas, the group’s designated Computer Geek.

The three women and the group’s fourth student, Doreen Ascatigno, all said they were baffled and dismayed by CUNY’s drive to scale back introductory science classes to three hours/three credits under the Pathways framework. Their course is currently six hours/four credits. The three-hour limit in Pathways will mean eliminating lab sessions from current introductory science classes: there is simply not enough time.


As it pushes hard to implement Pathways, CUNY central administration has suggested a variety of optional workarounds through which labs might be restored, as separate three-hour classes. But each of these comes with its own problems, from scheduling to transferability outside the CUNY system. All the proposed workarounds are at odds with the clear guidelines of the National Science Teachers Association: “At the college level…all introductory courses should include labs as an integral part of the science curriculum….Labs should correlate closely with lectures and not be separate activities.” The students in McDaniel’s class can’t see why an intro science class without labs would even be considered. “Taking the labs away would be crazy,” Ross said. “Reading about it [the subject material] is good. Talking about it is good. But, to get that hands-on experience puts everything together for you.”

‘Where’s the Money?’

“The tuition is going up again this year,” Navas noted. “So where is all the money going?” “If you don’t practice what you know, you know nothing,” said Nelson Gonzalez, the team leader in a nearby work group. To Gonzalez, for CUNY to put a three-hour ceiling on intro science classes seems both unwise and disrespectful. “It’s not right. It looks like poor people can’t get the same kind of education,” he said. “It’s like discrimination.”

While McDaniel was teaching her students the basics of blood pressure, her colleague Associate Professor Kyeng Lee was teaching a first semester, introductory anatomy and physiology course next door in which students used microscopes to examine slides that held various types of human tissue, including the skin, kidney, bladder and trachea.

“The images are in the textbook, but, it’s important to see them in real life,” Lee told Clarion. “Lab teaching is essential to introductory science. You take away the lab component, and there will not be science courses.”

McDaniel’s frustration with Pathways is compounded by the realization that it would undermine the work she and other members of her department have done in recent years to acquire additional laboratory supplies and equipment that CUNY had previously failed to provide their school.

“We should be expanding lab times, not cutting them,” McDaniel said. “The little bit we have is vital, taking that away eviscerates our students’ education in biology and the worth of the degrees they work so hard to earn.”

[Click here to learn more about the campaign to repeal Pathways.]

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