How to Create Physicists

How to Create Physicists

Photographs by Rod Searcey for Teaching Commons

Instructor: Kathryn A. Moler (“Kam”)
Department/School: Department of Physics
Course: Physics 62
Course Description: Laboratory class for Physics 61, an accelerated beginning physics class.
Audience: mostly first-year students co-enrolled in Physics 61 (41 students in Fall 2014)

Schedule: Once a week for 1 hour and 50 minutes

Learning Goals

Professor Moler wants the students in her lab class to learn that doing physics research is an iterative process, with many loops involved. “I hope they’ll take away some understanding of how messy and imperfect research really is, and also how difficult the early stages are. Those stages where you conceptualize things are in some ways the most important stages, and they are the stages that you need to go back to again and again,” explains Moler.

One student superglues fins onto a rocket.A correlated goal is for students to be the driving forces of that iterative process. “It’s really important that the students should own the process. It’s definitely the hardest part of teaching this class, both for me and for the teaching assistants, not to tell the students, ‘Oh, if you do it this way, you’ll get a really pretty answer,’” admits Moler.

“That way,” says Moler, “when they get to do research themselves, and they start to create original knowledge, they’ll take those bumps in the road in stride because they will have already experienced that in the slightly more controlled, well-mentored environment of a lab class.” Students who are allowed to find their own paths to appropriate answers are also better prepared to create worthwhile questions later on.

Another goal is for students to realize the importance of peer involvement in the research process. “I know that as a practicing scientist, the import of peer feedback is huge,” reports Moler. There’s already a lot of peer feedback before research hits the publication stage. There’s even more during the publication process and after a paper is published. Moler hopes to teach her students the value of working with peers to improve their research.

This is not a traditional lab.

“I’ve never thought traditional labs were very much fun,” admits Moler. “I think it’s demotivating when you know there’s a particular answer you’re supposed to get. It’s much more fun to explore things and to create things. The idea of exploring and creating is much more like what real scientists actually do. I wanted to give the students that experience at as an early an age as possible.”  

The lab starts with a cognitive task analysis that Carl Wieman wrote about the process of doing scientific research. Wieman lays out the steps that scientists take when conducting research and shows how different those steps are from what students in a traditional lab class typically do.  Two students launch a rocket on campus.

Wieman explains, “In a typical instructional lab class, the student uses a given apparatus to confirm an established scientific result. Thus, the questions or goals are pre-established, the data to be collected largely predetermined, the experiment has been designed, and the apparatus has been constructed.”

Additional research collected by the Board on Science of the National Research Council concludes that "most of the evidence does not support the argument that typical laboratory experiences lead to improved learning of science content. More specifically, concrete experiences with phenomena alone do not appear to force students to confront their misunderstandings and reevaluate their own assumptions."  

Moler shares these findings with the students to encourage them to be more intentional and reflective as they go about doing their own research.

Concerns and challenges

This approach presents some challenges.  In addition to learning the content knowledge appropriate to an introductory physics class and lab, students need to gain a certain amount of lab skills. Moler notes that her course's very student-driven, time-consuming research process only allows the students enough time to do two or three experiments per term, compared to doing one a week in a more traditional lab.

“There’s a certain amount of material that they simply won't have seen in the lab context,” says Kam.

On the other hand, Wieman argues that traditional labs, in which students do a well-defined lab every week, don’t actually reinforce the concepts they’re supposed to reinforce in any measurable way, in terms of students being able to do a better job of using those concepts somewhere on future assessments. “So,” says Moler, “it seems like they’re probably not losing very much, but there is definitely that worry that they’re only doing two or three experiments instead of ten.”

In-class Learning Opportunities

“I’m trying to create the opportunity for the students to design their own research question and have the experience of figuring out what kind of evidence they need and what kind of apparatus they need to build in order to answer the research question they’ve posed,” says Moler.

Students take preliminary data, analyze the data, and see if it makes sense. They must then go back to check whether they’ve really answered their research question by gathering suitable evidence.Two students analyze data on a computer in class.

“I want them to work through the process, and I want them to do that with peer feedback,” says Moler.  To facilitate feedback between peers, the teaching team designs a lot of “slightly structured” exercises where they ask students particular questions and have them work together in small groups to share their research process with each other.

“If you watch the students talking to each other, you can see how much they learn from explaining what they are doing to somebody else. You can also see how much they’re learning from trying to criticize somebody else’s work,” reports Moler.

Out-of-This-World Assignments

The assignments in Physics 62 are both open-ended and stimulating to the imagination. The students start by looking at gravity, which is a pretty common thing to look at in labs. But Moler doesn’t tell them to use a pendulum to measure the value of gravity on earth. Instead, she tells them to imagine. Here’s a glimpse of their first lab assignment:

"Imagine that you work aboard a starship, and your first mission is to help a civilization that's just discovered the scientific method to determine whether or not they can be sure that F=mg. You are also charged with seeing if it might be true on their planet, which has large caves and an unknown composition (so maybe g isn't constant there). Design an experiment that will test the claim and allow you to explain your results in a way that their civilization will understand."

Moler’s students look at the supplies around the room, find what they need, and see how well they can do this. This is their first assignment, and it has a pretty well-defined research question already given to them. But it gets them thinking about what makes a good experiment, what is suitable evidence, and how to know if they’ve answered the question or not. This approach leads students to branch out and embrace completely different methods to answer the question.

Online or Out-of-Class Strategies

To help facilitate collaboration outside of class, Moler and the teaching team for Physics 62 have adopted Lab Archives, an electronic lab notebook that lets students have access to each other’s lab notebooks online at any hour of the day or night. It’s been very helpful for letting a group share a common set of data.

Lessons Learned and Plans for the Future

“It’s a lot of work,” reflects Moler.  “The university needs to think about how to make it possible for instructors to put in the kind of time that a class like this requires.”

In order to scale up this kind of instruction, one part of the solution could be to think more about how teaching assistants could be taught to do this kind of teaching. “The most important thing that happens is the peer-to-peer interaction, but the teaching assistants can learn how to effectively lead the peer interactions,” says Moler.A student collects data from her team's trebuchet.

Moler also observes that the assessment structure is key to student learning. “Fortunately for me, this class is a credit/no credit class. I wish that more of our classes were like that,” says Moler.  This arrangement allows students and instructors alike to focus more on quality feedback without being overly concerned with graded performances.

Moler urges colleagues to think more about the teaching side of lab instruction: “How do we decide what teaching has value? It’s very early days in terms of thinking about what is the purpose of a lab. I think we need to be really clear about the main goals of a lab, and we need to be really clear about assessing whether we are meeting those goals or not when we decide which labs to put resources into.”

About the Teaching Team

Professor Kathryn A. MolerKathryn A. Moler (“Kam”), Professor of Physics and Sapp Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, is dedicated to exposing undergraduate students to the experience of experimental research. As a practicing physicist, Moler researches quantum decoherence and explores the theoretical side of strongly correlated electron materials.