By Donovan Makus
Welcome to Concordia! Whether you are a returning student or a fresh First Year, there is plenty to be excited about in this upcoming year, particularly for science students. There has never been a better time to be a student at Concordia. The new Centre for Science, Research, and Innovation (CSRI) is well-equipped for undergraduate research, as well as for hosting outside researchers. While the research side of the CSRI is something you’ll likely not fully participate in unless you’re a senior science student, the new facility also includes new spaces for studying, relaxation, and engagement for everyone.
One of the great advantages of attending Concordia is being a name and a face and not just a number. From the small class sizes and cohorts to the individualized support available from Student Services, there are many people on campus who can help and support you. First year, in particular, can be a stressful and overwhelming experience, and there are resources available to help you manage the transition and stresses of university life. From the CSA’s programs such as Peer Support, to the Writing Centre, to the student-led Supplemental Instruction sessions, don’t be afraid to use these resources!
While academics is an important aspect of your university journey, it shouldn’t be the sole focus. There are many clubs, faculty unions, and groups hosting a variety of events for students on campus, with plenty of events open to all students, regardless of Faculty. Making space in your schedule for the club fair will be time well spent. Attending a small school means that you’ll often find yourself attending classes with the same people from your cohort and see the same people day after day, giving you a great opportunity to form new friendships (and potential lab partners).
For First Year science students, or other students fulfilling their science requirements, your first experience with University level science courses lies ahead. A key part of many 100-level (and beyond) science courses are the labs. For some, the experience will be pleasant and easy; you had “wet labs” in high school or some other pre-existing experience. For others, this will be your first introduction to the lab, the lab report, and to the blue lab books that characterize many laboratory courses here at Concordia. Having successfully completed the introductory Biology, Chemistry, and Math labs, I feel at least somewhat qualified to offer some advice on how to best navigate this new world of university labs.
Looking back at my first Chem, Bio, and Math labs, I remember one single, overwhelming feeling: I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I had done the pre-reading, in the sense that my eyes had passed over the pages of the lab manual in a matter I would loosely define as “reading”, but I didn’t attempt to understand the labs beyond a surface level. I quickly learned the importance (the hard way, with scores of red pen marks over my assignments) of knowing what you’re doing in the lab period, before I walked in the door. From my conversations with other science students, I think I can safely say we’ve all walked into a lab, sat down at our spot, and started reading the lab manual for that day’s lab right then and there. However, this isn’t the best strategy for doing well in that lab. Understand what the purpose of the lab is, what assignments and data need to be collected, and what steps need to be followed in the lab to collect the data you will need to complete your assignments prior to entering the actual lab. Making flow charts may seem excessive at first when labs are just starting and simple, but once the more complicated labs begin later in the semester, they can prove to be invaluable, particularly for subjects such as Chemistry. Speaking of later in the semester, many courses will require a lab report due later in the semester. While the temptation to procrastinate is universal to the student experience, it’s particularly dangerous here because it removes your ability to save your lab report mark by seeking help from your lab instructor. Don’t be afraid to talk to your laboratory instructor, particularly about lab reports. If something doesn’t make sense or you don’t understand a question, check with your instructor and ensure you’re on the right track; they have office hours for a reason. This is especially important for your first lab report. Finally, a piece of “do as I say, not as I did” advice: don’t let yourself fall behind in your lab work, particularly your blue books. We’ve all been there; two midterms this week, an essay due, and life is happening at breakneck speed. But putting off the lab book work and falling behind will lead to rushed, confused work at the end of the semester right before the lab book deadline. Save yourself the stress and write up your labs as soon as possible. If none of these tips help, you can at least hold out hope that it gets better at the higher levels. In my senior level labs I have visited Elk Island, toured the River Valley, and counted cars in the parking lot, and that was just last year.
Finally, a last word of personal advice to First Years that applies to everyone, not just science students. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Most of us enter University as 17- or 18-year-olds with plans for the future, but those plans change as opportunities are presented; doors open and close. Your educational path here is one that will allow you to go in many different direction and broaden your academic horizons. You may discover a passion for a field or discipline you previously didn’t even realize existed; don’t be afraid to pursue it! When I entered Concordia as an almost 18-year-old, I was a Biology major with no declared minor. During First Year I took the standard introductory science courses and discovered I enjoyed some courses and subjects more than others, as any student does, and to pursue these, I switched to an Integrative Biology major. After registering for second year, I reflected back on the previous year and made the decision to switch to my current Environmental Science major. There is significant overlap between many of the science degree programs here, especially in First Year. This allows you the flexibility to easily change your major without requiring the necessity of taking additional courses. As you go through the ups and downs inherent to your first post-secondary experience, remember to step back and look at the broader picture; changing your major (within your existing Bachelor’s degree) is as simple as figuring out which courses you’ll need to take next and logging onto online services.
Hopefully this first week is just the beginning of a standout school year, be it your first or final year. We may have a small campus, but there are plenty of opportunities available to get involved and fully participate in campus life and explore university life. And as one final note, don’t let my advice about labs scare you; I’m sure you’ll be just fine.