It’s July, and the lazy, hazy days of summer are still a long way off for staff at the Science Lab at Athabasca University’s main campus.
As is the summer routine, about 45 students will descend on the lab during the course of July to complete intensive lab courses in biology, microbiology, chemistry and ecology. That means back-to-back, eight-day workweeks for lab staff will be the norm for the next while.
“Our summer science sessions create a very busy and hectic period for our science lab staff,” noted lab coordinator Robert Carmichael. “It does put pressure on us to present the best face of the university.”
However, he added, that pressure is nothing compared to the stress experienced by the students themselves.
“They’re very, very apprehensive,” he said. “It’s quite intimidating. They see this quite thick (work) book. We say it can be done in three days and they can’t quite see it.”
Carmichael recalls one student who was overwhelmed by it all, and spent the better part of one precious course day in the infirmary. “She looked soooo pale, very, very ill. I’m sure it was the stress.”
In another instance, a student asked how the course she had just completed would be reflected on her transcript. After a brief investigation, it was discovered the student hadn’t yet enrolled in the course.
“We get a lot of people here who have never been in a town smaller than 20,000,” added science technician Elaine Goth-Birkigt, noting many students don’t quite know what to expect. “And often those are people from (Canada).”
One student brought with his family with him. They rode a taxi to Athabasca from Edmonton International Airport, and were surprised to find Athabasca doesn’t have a shopping mall.
Birkigt reflects that the intensity of courses at AU mirrors the intensity students will encounter afterward, and a number of individuals who studied science at AU have gone on to become doctors, nurses, chiropractors.
According to Carmichael, students burn off stress in different ways. Some whoop it up at local establishments. Others leave the lab every day, completely spent mentally, emotionally and physically.
“(So far) students are much more serious this year,” he said. “They went back to their hotels and worked hard, and studied and slept.”
AU staff members do what they can to help alleviate student tension. Making accommodation recommendations, providing transportation to and from motels, and offering social opportunities for students to relax and unwind is just part of the process.
“(Summer session) does provide new opportunities to meet interesting people from all over the world,” Carmichael said. “We appreciate that so these few things we do don’t seem too difficult.”
And, he added, “There’s a sense of satisfaction from seeing students come in scared and see the smiles of satisfaction as they leave having completed courses. ”