Course Reflections: Intro Physics Lab (PLAB 193)

The Course:

This is the lab that goes along with the first semester of the algebra-based physics lecture. That means the students are mostly biology majors, industrial technology, or engineering technology.

This semester, there were only about 13 students enrolled. Here is a link to the course webpage. Over the years, I have learned that you really can just focus on one or maybe two big ideas during the semester. This time, I focused on:

  • Modeling with graphs. Collect data. Make a linear graph. Find the slope and interpret it.
  • Measurement and uncertainty. OK, technically I just used this during the second half of the semester.

The Good.

I can’t remember the exact paper—but there was a research paper that said physics labs don’t really help students. Oh, I found it.

Measuring the impact of an instructional laboratory on the learning of introductory physics (American Journal of Physics)

I feel like this gives me the freedom to do what I think will help the students the most. It doesn’t matter if I cover all the topics in the lecture. Yay.

With this in mind, I decided to start off with the marshmallow challenge. It’s basically a team-building and problem solving exercise in which groups try to create a structure to support a marshmallow as high as possible. I used this modified version – it’s great:

Other than that, here are some other things that worked well this semester:

  • Continued using end of class quizzes. Sometimes they seemed forced, but there were a couple of times that I made the quiz a sort of competition – like the projectile motion lab where they have to hit a target.
  • I think the numerical calculation lab went well. This could be better if I included the numerical stuff in more later labs. OK, technically it’s needed for the spring lab and the air resistance lab but normally students are too far behind to get to that part of the lab.
  • I think this lab on acceleration went fairly well. . Students use a photo gate and a cart rolling down a track to get velocity as a function of time.
  • Finally, I cut down on the pre-lab instructions. Students weren’t reading them anyway. I tried short presentations – but I don’t think that really worked either.

The Bad:

Let’s just get to a list of notes here.

  • The thing that sticks in my mind is the extreme frustration I had with graphs. I feel like at the end of the semester, there were still many students that still didn’t understand graphing or the slope of a linear function. Help.
  • Lab reports were for the most part super terrible. Maybe I should just stop having them turn in a lab report.
  • The last lab of the semester, I asked them what they wanted to focus on. They said they were interested in a lab where they collect data on their phones (it was an idea I mentioned using the PhyPhox app). I went over some of the experiments, but I don’t think anyone really did anything.

The Future

Here are some ideas for the next time I teach this lab.

  • No more lab reports? Maybe move to some type of worksheet that the students turn in?
  • Maybe more learning activities – stuff like card sorts and speed dating physics problems?
  • More numerical calculations.
  • Go over the PhyPhox stuff and give them an explicit experiment.
  • What about using plickers at the beginning of class?

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