Rethinking Lab Courses When the Labs Are Closed

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Rethinking Lab Courses When the Labs Are Closed


Heather J. Lewandowski, Physics Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Physics, University of Colorado Boulder, and Fellow of JILA

As universities and colleges across the United States switched to remote instruction in March 2020, many instructors were asking questions about how to structure physics courses to support students and promote continued learning. There were questions about synchronous vs. asynchronous lectures, flexibility in deadlines for assignments, administering exams, and access to technology for students, as well as concerns about the physical and mental health of students and instructors. These important issues were relevant for all physics courses, but lab courses raised many additional questions that needed answers.

A core component of many lab classes is students working together to design and construct an apparatus with equipment or to use an existing apparatus to take measurements. How do instructors transition these activities to a remote modality in a way that preserves at least some of the benefits of laboratory course work?

At the same time that institutions were transitioning to fully remote classes, our physics education research group at the University of Colorado Boulder wondered what solutions instructors would come up with to move their lab courses online. Over the last decade, we have conducted research on teaching and learning in physics lab classes, partnering with—and learning from—a large number of lab instructors across the United States. We were interested to see what creative strategies they would develop and the challenges they and their students would face in this new environment. We wanted to capture what was happening in lab classes across the country, from both student and instructor perspectives, with the hope of learning which strategies were particularly productive. We sought to document this unprecedented and challenging time in physics education, as well as to identify areas where we need to better support students learning experimental physics.

In order to collect and analyze this information from a large number of students and instructors involved in undergraduate physics labs, we proposed a project to the National Science Foundation’s RAPID program. We were awarded a grant to collect responses to both open- and closed-form survey questions posed to students and instructors. Over 2,200 students and 106 instructors responded to the surveys. We have since followed up with in-depth interviews with some students and instructors to get a more complete picture of lab classes in Spring 2020.

Spring 2020 Observations

There are many things we learned from an initial analysis of some of the data.1 From the instructor perspective, some of the largest challenges involved providing students with a similar experience to the in-person lab under significant time and technological constraints. These results were not unexpected, as the switch to emergency remote teaching happened rapidly and often with insufficient access to technology. Perhaps because of these challenges and limited student access to equipment, many instructors shifted their class goals, focusing more on reinforcing physics concepts than developing lab skills. Courses also shifted more toward individual work instead of group work. There are many possible reasons for this, such as limited student access to a fast, reliable internet connection or intentional flexibility to account for the hardships students and instructors were facing.

Through the stressful process of creating a remote version of their lab courses, instructors often found themselves asking, What is the most important thing students should learn in this course? And then, How can I achieve that learning objective given the new constraints?

In one case, an instructor had always wanted to develop a more student-driven, open-inquiry version of his course. In the transition to remote labs, he was able to try out this idea, and it worked very well—so well, in fact, that he plans to continue this more open-ended version of the course even when classes return to normal in-person learning. This focus on defining learning goals and trying new ways to reach them may be one positive outcome from all of this going forward.

While, predictably, most students reported preferring in-person labs for multiple reasons (e.g., being able to work with equipment and having a group to help with the lab), there were some aspects of remote labs that students viewed positively. They noted that remote labs were generally better than in-person labs at enabling them to work at their own pace and control their learning. Perhaps the flexibility built into the remote course allowed students to have more agency in their lab learning. However, just as in experimental measurements, there was a distribution of responses from students, indicating that there clearly isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Many other issues came up that instructors should consider going forward. For example, they shouldn’t assume all students have access to smart phones, household materials, and fast, reliable internet connection. Second, when deciding on which materials or technological tools to utilize in a remote class, instructors need to consider their accessibility for students with cognitive or physical disabilities. Third, the flexibility provided by open-ended projects, if managed successfully, works well in the remote environment. Finally, synchronous, short meetings with small groups anecdotally work better to foster collaboration than longer meetings with larger groups.

Making the Best of Your Lab Experience

As a student taking a physics lab class, there is a lot you can’t control, such as the modality of the course or the types of activities you will be doing. However, there are things you can do to get the most out of the class as it is designed.

  • Consider that the process of experimental physics is so much more than just working with equipment. The full experimental process includes reading the existing scientific literature, defining a research question, developing a proposal for answering the question, designing the experiment, constructing the apparatus, troubleshooting the equipment, making measurements, doing data analysis and modeling, drawing conclusions based on the data and models, making iterative improvements (including to apparatus, data taking, and models), and presenting results to peers. You may not get to take part in all of these aspects, but you may also get the opportunity to focus more deeply on some of these components than in a traditional in-person course.
  • Engage in collaboration with your classmates, TAs, and instructors. Experimental physics is not a solitary endeavor. Progress in science is made by teams of people working collectively toward a common goal. Remote or physically distanced collaboration may require some different skills than working in normal times and use different tools (Zoom, Slack, etc.). However, this type of collaboration is actually very common. International research teams and people in different cities and countries collaborate remotely as a standard practice.
  • Employers of STEM graduates often note one of the skills many new employees lack is the ability to work productively on interdisciplinary teams.2 Lab classes, in-person and online, offer opportunities to learn how to be a productive team member, how to play different roles on the team, how to help guide the team, and how to overcome obstacles as a group. These are invaluable skills no matter what career path you take.
  • Finally, remember this is still a new, and not ideal, situation for you, your classmates, and your instructors. Some empathy for, and patience with, yourself and others will go a long way toward helping you have a productive learning experience in a physics lab course during the coming year. Using household equipment, data can be collected by students at home. For example, a water bottle, some soapy water, a bowl of hot water, a tape measure, and a smartphone camera allow students to make quantitative measurements of thermodynamic quantities at the kitchen table. Photo by M. F. J. Fox.

1. Fox, M. F. J., Zwickl, B. M., and Lewandowski, H. J. (2020). Teaching labs during a pandemic: Lessons from Spring 2020 and an outlook for the future. arXiv:2007.01271.
2. Leak, A. E., Santos, Z., Reiter, E., Zwickl, B. M., and Martin, K. N. (2018). Hidden factors that influence success in the optics workforce. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res., 14(1), 010136.

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