Teaching Methods

Radical Renovations: The iOLab

I visited my alma mater today. The entirety of Green Street on campus is closed to traffic due to all of the construction. Buildings have gone down and come up and I half expected time to still be frozen in the year 1967 in the physics building.

When I walked in I found quite the opposite. Not only newly renovated rooms, but there is actually a women’s bathroom on the fourth floor. (This was always a running joke)

The reason I spent 6 hours in my car today, however, was to visit the Physics 101 class. iolab_remotes_redMy former adviser, Mats Selen, has been working on a new project: the iOLab. The concept is simple, it’s a multisensor system in a box. And it can do everything your $10,000 of Vernier equipment can do… for a little over $100. It connects wirelessly to your computer and runs with free, opensource software that does all of the analysis our expensive programs run.

On the other side of the coin, however, is a radical change in how the introductory level classes are being taught. When students walked into the lab, they had done a pre-lab experiment earlier…..at home…..with their iOLabs. Quite simply, they made a stack of books, put another book on top by its edge and then looked to see how the force changed with the iOLab as it was placed at different distances from the book stack. Data were submitted ahead of time for credit. Students discussed the results at the beginning of the lab and then were given their task. It’s the classic peg-board demo, however, students had to find a way to relate the force to the placement of the probe if the pivot was located in the top corner.

This was the sum total of the direction given to students.

Within about 20 minutes all students were taking measurements. Some were looking only horizontally, others were looking both horizontally and vertically. Questions arose about the approach: if we change the angle at which we hold the probe the force will change. Are we supposed to do this with a horiztontal force too? I think that’s impossible.

They were told it’d be great if they came up with a mathematical relationship, but they’re just looking for the trends.

Within an hour students were plotting their data, recognizing it was an inverse relationship and running the curve.

One group really wanted to get the formula.

Another group recognized the torques should be equal and started calculating all of the torques. Percent uncertainty was one of the objectives focused on, so I wanted to see how well they were grasping that concept. I looked at the torques and noticed the values were .14, .14, .14, .15, .16. So I asked them how they were going to decide that those were constant and not increasing. They responded that they would have to determine their percent uncertainty and compare what was acceptable to those values.

Now, clearly there are major differences between high school junior and seniors and pre-med juniors and seniors, but at the same time, it was still remarkable how they were approaching the lab, developing their experiment and writing up their labs. It is something that very much excites me about the potential use in the high school classroom (and online classrooms, and college classrooms etc)

I also asked students about their previous physics experiences. About half reported they had taken physics in high school, ranging from regular level to AP Physics 1. ALL students reported that they felt they had a FAR BETTER grasp of physics now in this course, compared to their high school course. Several students who said this felt the need to insist they still had a great high school teacher 🙂

The message, however, is clear: we need to give our students the opportunity to design and evaluate their experiments.

Also, the iOLab is a very exciting new piece of equipment. Morten Lundsgaard, currently the Coordinator of Physics Teacher Development
Instructor, is hoping to run workshops and/or a camp for high school teachers. If you are interested you should contact him!

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