Summertime is all go for teaching technicians

Sophie Litherland,  Bristol University

As a teaching technician, I often get asked what we do in the long period between undergraduate teaching terms. While certainly less hectic, it is the valuable time we need not only to regroup for the next academic year, but to reflect on what can be improved. Having just finished up our summer, it’s a good time for a recap.

The first port of call is of course catching up with everything that gets left behind. Working in biochemistry, we use a lot of specialised equipment which requires equally specialised knowledge to repair and maintain. This is of course very applicable to a vast number of disciplines; in fact, I would venture that every technician reading this had a mental image conjured up at the mention of the umbrella term “specialist equipment”. Whether it spins, lights up or just sits in the corner and hums menacingly, each piece of equipment is in need of their own particular brand of love and attention.

It may not always be practical to change a method of working that isn’t optimal once you’ve got going, especially halfway through a set of practical classes. Such things may instead be revisited in the summertime, with reduced pressure of no students to be looked after. Without going into specifics, taking the time to sit and evaluate how each class is run gives a voice to all the team and has yielded excellent results come term time. When everyone knows what cog they are, the machine runs smoothly.

Sustainability in science is a key principle in our teaching labs, as it is throughout many labs. Being able to assess our waste disposal and our energy use really helped reduce plastic waste and earn LEAF accreditation. Implementing sustainability measures that are practical to follow has made a positive impact across all our teaching labs.

Of course, it’s not just undergraduate students that pass through the labs, we also have summer schools with students ranging from Year 10 to sixth formers. Running a reduced practical with small class sizes really allows us as technicians to get some excellent teaching time with students. Younger students often bring with them an energy of excitement and curiosity into the lab, one that is highly contagious. I thoroughly enjoy talking about the technical career to young minds, who seem very eager to learn about different roles and opportunities in a future career.

The power of secondments

Speaking of experience, secondment to other labs around the building, gain valuable tips and tricks that are characteristic of a technician’s role. This is perhaps one of the single most useful experiences I have had in my technical career, and I would highly recommend it to any technical staff. For a start it can get rid of any bad habits that inevitably form in an isolated team, while also reinforcing good working practice.

Secondments are also where I’ve picked up a multitude of useful skills that have been either directly applicable or perhaps useful in some other way. One secondment I had was focussed on building safety and writing relevant risk assessments. Upon coming back, I was able to give constructive input to our own risk assessments and safety aspects in the lab. In another instance, I went and trained in the use of laminar flow hoods involving cell culture. Fast forward a year to when the decision was made to install some in our own lab, our tech team was already trained and competent in their use.

It’s amazing how quickly summer passes, so it’s good to get the most out of the off season. While summer may not be as structured as the rest of the year, a good plan can really carry you forward into a good academic year. Term time is where we work hardest, but summertime is when we have to work smart.

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