White Lab Coats. Seriously?


I’ve never donned a white coat in my laboratory.

Some days I’ll wear laser safety goggles.

Some days a t-shirt and pants will do.

On others, a slightly nicer collared-shirt is in.

Maybe even work clothes.

And on rare occasions, a wetsuit.

But never a white coat.



For some people, science is wearing a white lab coat. But that’s not how I do it.

Its surprising, I think, that some people assume that’s what scientist do — hide behind lab coats:

“… I propose giving a name to a new kind of theory of learning which will reflect the fact that human experience gives all of us a vaster store of knowledge about learning than has been accumulated by all white-coated academics in their laboratories. ”   — Seymour Papert

Oh, please, Seymour…

Scientists gain and develop knowledge through experience – it’s no different for us than anyone else. And we gain experience by experiencing. There’s no short cut.

Year after year I’m amazed at the wide array of skills that are required to place myself in the path of new experiences. This is a point that I like to make very clear to my students. If they are to become engineers: the good jobs, the interesting jobs, the jobs worth having require far more skills than can be taught during the undergraduate experience. Each student need to develop a mindset that allows them to set aside experince limiting attachments.  In that way, the course of their lives — what’s needed in the moment — can be the best teacher they’ll ever have.

One of the ways I convey this in my Introduction to Engineering course is by coming to lecture dressed exactly as my day requires me to be dressed. Some days this is a suit and tie, while others… well you saw the list above.

I’ve learned never to directly address why I come to class dressed in such a wide variety of outfits. I just come, deliver the lecture and carry on as normal. The lesson that is planned is secret. It only unfolds when the time is right. And experience has shown that I don’t have to wait long before one of the more boisterous students unwittingly calls for it:

“Some days you come dressed in tattered jeans and a t-shirt, and now you’re wearing a suit? What’s your deal? What do you do with your days?!”



Now I have their attention.


I could have lectured /at them/ for weeks on the types of skills needed to be a successful engineer. But with this one question – and a well timed answer – I can convey the depth and breadth of the work covered by the term “engineering” or “research scientist”… at least as it pertains to me. 

And isn’t that the point?

I’m barely an expert at what I do. How can I genuinely represent myself as an expert on what it takes to be successful for other people?  In other fields? In different times, places, cultures?

I can’t.

All I can do is be to genuine with myself and with my students. That’s the best, most authentic version of my teaching — sharing my experiences with my students  so they can learn from them. If it were anything else, they could get it from a book.  

And perhaps some of the things I have to say about my experiences as a researcher don’t apply to them? But that’s OK too.  The lesson for these students is that I’m teaching how I learn from my experiences — by example.

Every day is different. What’s required of each and every one of us if we are to be successful– no matter your background or discipline  —  is a detachment from what we thought we knew the day before; detachment from the things we *want* to be true.

I’d really like science to just require a white lab coat. But it doesn’t. It requires a great deal more. And that’s one of the best lessons I can hope to leave my students with: the cost (and rewards) of dedication.



5 Replies to “White Lab Coats. Seriously?”

  1. Really enjoyed reading your post! Did you find students behaving or treating you differently depending on what you wore? I really liked how you related personal gaps in expertise to authenticity in teaching. I think students would appreciate the honesty, though it has always concerned me whether there were more appropriate ways of communicating uncertainties so as to maintain student respect for the instructor. Wording and body language seem incredibly important for me.

  2. That’s an interesting way to embed the idea. This somehow makes the class become an adventure with secrets and hidden plots to be found. I start wondering if there are more plots to be embedded.

  3. Your post shows how much you enjoy and are passionate about teaching and care about the learning that your students are going through.

  4. Did you ever wear a wetsuit in your class? I liked the way you connected different parts of your writing. Teaching by sharing experiences!

  5. It’s really an interesting post! By sharing research experience, researchers could learn from each other which is a much more vivid lesson than textbook. For undergraduates who do not have much opinions about what science and research is, these shared experience would help them form a fundamental idea.

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