Lab Descriptor

For a long time I thought an overall descriptor of
what is taught in 1st year Physics labs might be
–           “teaching how to conduct experimental research”
I’ve always felt the descriptor, although reasonable, was not quite right.
I think I now have found a better descriptor as
–         “teaching experimental investigative skills”
This leads more to what might be usuful in working for a company
and still addresses university needs.

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I have moved our department external support site to a content management system, DNN (aka DotNetNuke – see an DNN overview on my dev blog). This move is from a previous IIS web hosting service with FrontPage extensions and a single user ID shared by all users. Using DNN has many advantages, among them;

  • DNN is a free, open source platform running under
  • very stable, used by many major corporations
  • creation/maintenance of individual user IDs
  • permissions security structure
  • many modules that are easily install (and maintained)
  • user-friendly editing of web pages (content and appearance)
  • infrastructure for writing custom modules

Our hosting service is now Power DNN with GoDaddy for DNS. PowerDNN does the initial setup of the DNN software. Costs overall are minimal for hosting services (~$20/month for PowerDNN and $10/year for DNS by GoDaddy). An administrator is needed for site maintenance. Maintenance includes keeping DNN software up to date (a relatively simple process), maintaining user IDs, installing premium modules, backups and an overall understanding of the content management system.

Currently our Physics Dept DNN website hosts public views, student labs and secured pages to department discussions, wiki and lab clicker questions. We use this in conjunction to the university official dept site and Moodle for teaching courses. We purchased a couple of DNN premium modules, Evotiva Backup and Bring2Mind Document Exchange (a file management system). In addition we are running the free modules ActiveForum and dnnWiki. Also my custom module, SLO (Science Labs Online), is actively used for the first year labs.

A few things have not been moved to run under DNN. Our primary first year lab manual was well-developed as a standalone site. I found I could simply setup a separate sub-website outside of the DNN environment (using the PowerDNN admin panel) and then port our lab manual there. Also direct connections to the university registration system have not been straight forward.

In addition to DNN, we continue to use Microsoft Office 365 hosting service (free to educational institutions). Most all our lab internal information, notes, quizzes is stored in O365. We might eventually move all this to our new DNN site.

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Clickers in the lab

  • I began using clickers in Fall 2012 (i>Clicker) with my lab intro talk.
    – I found student acceptance very positive with comments like “clickers helped me think of …”
    – Clickers are required for the associated Physics course
  • I strive to ask 3 clicker questions in each lab talk
    – one review clicker question at the very start of the lab to encourage students to be on time and to review concepts from previous lab
    – two clicker questions at end of lab talk
  • Style of clicker questions
    – questions generally ask which is true (or false) with five statements. This requires students to reflect/review each statement. Statements can have different foundations (thus reviews five concepts)
    – students can talk with their partner and refer to their lab notebook
  • Clicker workflow
    – clicker question is shown on digital projector and polling started. Polling triggers a screen capture that is recorded with the poll
    – students click in. I look to encourage every student to click in
    – polling is stopped, usually when every student has clicked in (software show number of responses)
    – a histogram distribution of answers is revealed. A little humour if broad distribution
    – I review each statement answer with some background foundation. I find students seem to listen carefully to this review, perhaps because they now have a vested interest
  • Clicker grading
    – 3 points for responding plus 2 point if correct (total 5 points/question). This encourages students even if they get it wrong
    – End-of term I have the clicker software export responses and summaries to spreadsheets which I use for a clicker lab grade out of 5 marks (roughly 5% of the lab mark)
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Lab Grading

One of the most gut-wrenching components to teaching Physics labs is grading student’s work.

A traditional lab evaluation approach is to grade “short reports”, a report usually written in the lab. In this approach, students are under a great deal of pressure to write the report components that will be evaluated and to write them while doing the lab. In grading these reports, providing meaningful feedback means including comments on student’s work. The grading stress grows with each report as feedback comments are the same for common errors (one wonders if a rubber stamp might be of value).

A different approach we’ve taken is to contain evaluations to short quizzes. Quizzes probe key concepts being taught in the lab. Our quizzes are open notebook to encourage students to take meaningful notes. Weekly quizzes are graded for marks with feedback given on review of the quiz with the class in the following week.

Both approaches usually are complemented with the added requirement of formal reports, a polished report suitable for publication. We provide student detailed specification outlining requirement and expectations of a published report.
Grading these with feedback notes is time-consuming. Checklists of common errors and concerns help.

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Basic Understanding of Current

We did a hire for a first year physics instructor. One interview question we asked was:

“A student comes to you very concerned that they are expected to use current on the order of amps in the lab. They found on the internet that current much less, on order of 100 milliamps, can seriously hurt, even kill a person.”
What do you tell this student.

Surprisingly, not a single interviewee gave a suitable answer with many even seemingly lost to correctly understanding the situation. Even when prodded to the right answer, some interviewees where at a loss.

The question arises as to why? Interviewees where mostly Physics PhDs with reasonable understanding of Physics. Some even experimentalists. And yet, confounded with a very basic question of current.

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Physics lab types and evaluation styles

I thought a summary with some key phrases and terms might be useful

Types of Physics labs

  1. Traditional, supervised lab
    • “desktop experiments”
  2. Studio Physics
    • instructional lecture done with the lab
    • TEAL: Technology Enabled Active Learning
    • “workshop Physics” or “activity based Physics”
  3. Virtual labs
    • experiments simulated in software
    • PhET
  4. Remote labs
    • equipment remotely controlled, often with a web interface
  5. Kit labs
    • lab done unsupervised with a kit
    • “string and sticky tape experiments”

Evaluation styles

  • worksheets or “fill-in the blanks”
  • “short reports”
  • “formal report”
  • quiz
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Blog beginning

I’ve been teaching 1st year Physics labs at Capilano University for a very long time. Over the course of the years I found a large diversity among institutions of how Physics labs are taught. There are common expectations among those teaching but often these are not explicitly defined. Novice view of Physics labs often cannot identify what is learnt.

I hope here I can provide some insight into what is important to Physics labs, overview different models used into teaching Physics labs and cumulate relevant information.


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