Improving Intro Physics Labs

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This semester I am teaching introductory (College Physics) labs for the first time in four years. Although the labs are relatively similar to what I was doing four years ago, I find them to be far less acceptable. By that I mean – I struggle to see the relevance of what we are asking students to do in the lab exercises and activities.

Some aspects of the labs are great – and important: students are learning how to work in Excel to record data, do calculations, and present results. Students are learning how to quantify the uncertainty in their measurements. But the actually activities students are taking part in – dropping a picket fence, measuring the time it takes for some masses attached to a spinning device to reach the floor, etc. are so far removed from skills or activities that they would actually find relevant to their future work. Furthermore, there is little evidence that these kinds of activities advance student understanding of the concepts they are meant to be reviewing.

So where do we go from here? I’m hoping we can bring in a new colleague who can help us rethink our approach to laboratory teaching. But even without that person, we need to start looking at how to do this better. We need to start reviewing the AAPT Lab Guidelines, and find examples of how others have implemented these guidelines. We should be able to do better, and give students an educational experience that is not only relevant, but that engages and interests them. I’m excited to re-engage with the laboratory courses, and to use some time on my sabbatical to examine this issue and begin to develop a new curriculum that moves our courses forward.

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