On-Campus Lab and other Resources – What they can offer for teaching


February 17, 2015
with Whitney Lytle, UTSA Center for Archaeological Research Legacy Coordinator and PhD Student, and Leah McCurdy, PhD Candidate and Adjunct Instructor

In our February meeting, ATF members discussed the value and logistics of using on-campus labs for instruction and student research. We advocate getting to know your on-campus resources and employing them in class, where appropriate and possible. In general, this practice provides several benefits such as experiential learning for students, application of conceptual or abstract course content, getting out of the classroom and exploring a new environment, and interacting with a new set of people. I have incorporated lab visits and activities in several of my classes and find that students appreciate a change of scenery, seeing new faces, and seeing what real people do that relates to what we talk about in class. As an archaeologist, the opportunities to incorporate labs into my course may be more plentiful than other disciplines. However, I encourage you to be creative and think about how an excursion to a different part of campus can benefit your students and make your class more dynamic and engaging. I advocate a sort of mobile teaching strategy to keep students thinking (about the material, where class will be held next, and what unexpected things may come up in a new place), to engage their creative side, and to expose them to their university beyond classrooms, projector screens, and lecterns.

“Lab” is broadly defined to encompass spaces on campus where research, production, and/or applied academic pursuits are undertaken. Our discussion focused on labs found on the UTSA campus as the place that unites ATF members, though we recognized that this is not our permanent home. I use examples from UTSA to illustrate potentials for incorporating labs and experiential learning in any course, on any campus.

The Center for Archaeological Research (CAR)

One of the motivations behind this topic was to introduce ATF members to CAR as a resource. CAR is a large cultural resource management (CRM), research, and curatorial facility located on the UTSA main campus. It is home to the Legacy outreach program, headed by Whitney Lytle. Whitney discussed the possibilities for student engagement at CAR, ranging from tours of the artifact lab facilities, hands-on activities in artifact washing, sorting, processing, and analyzing, experimental archaeology demonstrations, use of faunal type collections, activities involving human skeletal collections, mock excavations, and more. Whitney emphasized the applicability of many of these opportunities to all anthropological sub-fields and for non-major, major, and upper division courses. CAR also provides a realistic example of CRM archaeology and careers for undergraduate students. While not every university has a large archaeological laboratory on campus, many have smaller departmental labs or faculty research labs. Consider collaborating with a colleague to offer your students the opportunity to see artifact processing in progress or view realistic excavation data or participate in bioarchaeology identification activities. In CAR’s case, Whitney also highlighted opportunities at CAR for student research projects and even internships. If you ask students to produce a research paper as part of your class, you can encourage them to make use of an on-campus archaeology or anthropology lab to conduct data collection, analysis, or get help for the projects.

Art Studios

I strongly encourage you to explore your Art Department for lab and studio facilities that you can incorporate into discussions of material culture, production, ideological expression, and subjectivities. For example, UTSA has a new Ceramics and Sculpture Studio on campus that houses undergraduate and graduate classes, graduate and faculty studios, as well as several production areas. In chatting with the director of this studio, I learned that Ceramics I undergraduates conduct a coil method project in which they replicate an ancient ceramic vessel of their choice using the traditional coil method of ceramic production. This would be an excellent opportunity for anthropology students to observe production in action, get a good sense of ceramic materials and transformation, and practice ethnographic methods. You could ask each of your students to choose a ceramics student to observe (taking ethnographic notes) and then conduct an interview (structured, semi-structured, or un-structured based on their questions). What a great opportunity for students to engage with what other students do in their classes, practice anthropological skills, and experientially learn about an important type of archaeological material. The UTSA Ceramics and Sculpture Studio also has three full-size brick kilns built in the traditional chambered style. Graduate students and faculty periodically fire using these kilns and repair/reconstruct them to test differences. This is basically experimental archaeology in action and in UTSA’s backyard. There may be opportunities like this near you that could bring many aspects of anthropological research and content to life for your students. Many art departments also have numerous studios for painting, print making, photography, and sculpture production that may serve for similar activities. Explore your campus’ art galleries as a venue for discussing ideological expression and subjectivity with your students.

Astronomical Observatory & Planetarium

Some universities have astronomy departments with observation facilities that may be open to the wider campus. Further, some campuses may contain a planetarium for teaching and community outreach purposes. Imagine meeting your students at the campus planetarium, viewing the milky as Maya astronomers would have seen it, and discussing cosmology and phenomenology. Imagine developing a program so your students can view the night’s sky from multiple different latitudes and longitudes and then starting a discussion about ideology, environmental context, and cultural relativism. You could also use a physics observatory or other science lab as a case study for anthropology of science and/or illustrations of high-level concepts like Latour’s subject/object and nature/culture discussions.

We recognize that there are constraints on your time and your ability to schedule lab visits in your classes. Class size may be an issue for small locations. There are several solutions to the class size problem such as splitting your class in half into lecture and lab groups. The first lecture group (last names A-K for example) meet at the regular classroom to engage in a lecture with you. The first lab session visits the lab directed by a colleague or supervisor. The following class period, the groups switch so that the half that attended lecture first will visit the lab, and vice versa. If lab space is very restricted but you want your students to experience it, you could ask them to visit the lab on their time and write a reaction or summary paper. Perhaps your institution does not have many developed labs. Check into other nearby universities or institutions on make a class session into a field trip. Check into virtual options. There may be virtual labs that you could visit with your students online. ATF members also recognized the challenges of new content development that would be required to incorporate labs into your courses. There may be opportunities to team up with a lab or studio director to co-develop an activity or exercise. But by far, I think the most effective way is to put your feelers out and just see what labs and studios are already doing. Like our example of the UTSA Ceramic and Sculpture Studio, undergraduate anthropology students could observe and interview ceramics students with very little prep time and benefit greatly from a new environment, interacting with new students, and seeing a process in action. The most important thing is to be creative and be open to collaboration.