Monday, February 25, 2008

Revamping Intro Physics Laboratory - Part 1

I used to hate doing the lab in First Year college intro physics classes. It would be 2 hours of torture, and at that time, I didn't see the point. Unless things have changed, most students taking such classes would tend to feel the same way as I did. And I think this is a waste of opportunity to really get through to the students of THE most important aspect of science, and of physics in particular - the empirical testing of physical concepts, and how we arrive at our knowledge to accept something as valid. This is what separates science from pseudosciences (and even religion).

The problem here starts from the very beginning. When I was that freshman undergraduate, no instructor ever spent time explaining why the laboratory sessions are important, why it is crucial that we actually DO things, rather than just read or watch what is being done. No one was explaining to me the fact that the SKILLS that I could get out of the physics lab may turn out to be a rather important aspect of my education that transcends beyond just physics, but into other parts of my life. This means that it doesn't matter if you're a physics major or not, the physics labs can be quite beneficial as one progresses in one's education, career, and life. I strongly believe students should be made aware of this in no uncertain terms. The physics instructors must impress upon the students why doing these laboratory experiments is important, what kind of skills are being practiced, and why this is different than just sitting and reading. I would think that the students would at least become aware that there is a rational reason for forcing them to do such a thing, rather than just them being told that they need to do this for no valid reason.

When I was a lab TA years ago, I tried doing just the very thing. More than 3/4 of my students at that time were not physics majors, and I flat out told them that in the lab sessions, it was more important to pay attention to what they were doing, and reporting what they were doing, rather than the final "answer" or results that they were trying to measure. I was more interested in what they were thinking as they were doing the experiment, reporting accurately their observations, and if the results looked weird, to notice that they did look weird rather than just reporting the number and did not realize something was not quite right. In other words, I was more interesting in the doing of the experiments themselves rather than testing if the students understood the physics theory or idea that was being tested. I was more interested that the student acquire proper experimental skills. They can learn more effectively about the theory and principles in class. I wanted the lab session to be more "hands on" on how to think and conduct an experiment to measure something.

So already my philosophy in what an intro physics lab session should be was different than what I encountered during my undergraduate years. And after being in this profession for many years, and being an experimentalist, I am even more convinced that this is what such lab sessions should be.



Anonymous said...

When I had lab classes as a UK Physics undergrad, the instructors/supervisors (ie, the academics) were only interested in making sure that you (i) worked fast enough to finish everything on the project instruction sheet and, (ii) that your lab diary was as full and accurate and complete as possible. And although (ii) is important, its dominance meant that there was never really any time to explore the equipment and work out how to *do* experiments, it was all just about working out how to write a comprehensive lab-diary. I just ended up pretty much hating all the experimental work. In fact I only ever got 'into' the work on computational projects (I was doing a Computational Physics strand degree), where the supervisor said, use the worksheets as a guideline, do whatever you find interesting...

Maybe it's their loss; everyone out of my year who left (or stayed) to do PhDs went into theoretical projects :)

(Sorry, I think I had to get that off my chest)

ZapperZ said...

.. and I think what you experienced there is the norm, rather than the exception. Most students, including me, hated those labs. I don't think first year undergraduate physics labs are taken seriously enough by the majority of schools. They certainly do not emphasize WHY students should pay attention to it. Most think that it is simply to TEST the lessons being learned in class, or to reinforce the "validity" of those principles. I don't see it that way. While it is nice to use the labs to illustrate these lessons learned in class, the labs have a more important mission beyond that.

I'm going to explore that mission in my next entry on this topic.


Anonymous said...

I think intro physics labs get tripped up by the students knowing what the answer is supposed to be, and they focus on getting the right answer (and get frustrated if they don't) rather than on the potential fun of the investigative process. Too bad we can't change the laws of physics while they are doing the lab.

ZapperZ said...

Ah, but I hope you continue reading this blog, because I will propose at least a couple of experiments in which, while the "answer" and technique are obvious to us, the students may not know what they should get right away.

I think it isn't the "experiment" that is the problem here, but rather the experiment/laboratory instructions and how it is conducted.


John Griffin said...

Actually, I rather liked my intro physics labs: I really liked the work of it, rolling my sleeves up and making something work, solving problems with my hands as well as my head. I could have spent endless hours noodling around with the equipment. Then again, I didn't make very good grades in my lab classes because I DID noodle so much!