March is fast approaching and with it March Madness, also known as the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament (go Cardinal!). The chemistry department at the University of Texas, Austin, took a page out of the basketball book last year and created a “Safety Madness” tournament—complete with brackets–for its department.
Lab groups divided into the “makers” (organic and inorganic divisions) and “measurers” (analytical and physical divisions), says chemistry professor Sean T. Roberts. The reason for the split was concern about comparing different lab operations. “My lab does ultrafast spectroscopy, and the biggest concern for us is laser safety,” Roberts says. “I don’t know how you compare laser safety practices versus synthesis. The risks are very different.” So the department decided to crown one “makers” champion and one “measurers” champion.
For the initial round of the tournament, each lab group had to submit a best practices document for that group. The idea was to get groups to settle on core tenets that they should follow. “We got all manner of different documents back,” Roberts says. His group was new and had to create their from scratch, while others had something that had clearly been passed down for years from group member to group member. One came in as a mad lib—with correct answers at the bottom, Roberts says.
Round two involved having faculty do a lab inspection. “We’d ask students questions and put their feet to the fire to try to figure out which labs were better prepared,” Roberts says. The winners of this round each got a $100 gift card.
The final round involved student-led lab inspections. The ultimate champions? Eric Anslyn’s group for the makers and Roberts’s group for the measurers. Each group earned a $200 gift card.
For a first time event, Roberts was pretty happy with how the contest went, he says. One disappointment was that only about half of the department competed, but that might have been due to poor advertising, he says.
Roberts was also surprised by the feedback he got from students. “I thought that students would be more excited by having a financial prize at the end, but that wasn’t the case,” Roberts says. “Talking to students, many felt that they would prefer an award that they could put on their CV to help them land a job in an industrial setting.”
“One positive that came out of the competition was that some members of our faculty saw the value in having a peer-to-peer style lab evaluation apart from the inspections that we have periodically from EHS,” Roberts adds. “I’m partnering with another junior faculty member at UT, Mike Rose, to institute a series of student-run peer-to-peer inspections.” Those inspections will happen over the next few weeks. Also, the department will likely hold the contest again later this year, albeit with a different prize structure, Roberts says.