Remote Physics Labs

This is not a normal semester. So, how can you move your physics labs to a remote learning environment? Here are some ideas.

What is the goal of a lab?

This is what we should always consider when making any changes to a curriculum. What are we trying to do. Or, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger:

“Who is your daddy, and WHAT does he do?”

Kindergarten Cop

So, why do we have labs? Honestly, I don’t know. Here are some thoughts:

  • They gives students a “hands-on” opportunity to explore the physics from their lecture class.
  • Students can get experience with certain pieces of important equipment—oscilloscopes, meter sticks (kidding).
  • The nature of science. How do you learn about science without doing science? In labs, students can design and build their own experiments (ideally).
  • Science communication. This is what a lab report is supposed to do—but even having students share ideas in class can be super useful.
  • More time with physics.

I don’t the answer here. Also, if the lab is a service course for some other major then I guess that other department should tell us what they want out of the lab.

Now for some remote lab ideas.

Online labs

What if students had some type of online lab? Maybe they could play around with some virtual lab equipment to collect data. I’m thinking about the PhET simulators. They have some pretty sweet circuit simulators. Students could build a circuit, measure voltage and current and do a bunch of stuff. Not bad.

There’s also the great Pivot Interactives videos. These are pre-made video experiments with measurement tools built in. Students can use the video and measure stuff like the time it takes a ball to fall or the period of a pendulum. This stuff is really nice.

Oh, there’s also Second Life. Physics labs in a virtual reality. I’m mostly joking, but maybe…

Numerical Calculations

This is the perfect time to have students solve some physics problems with python (or some other method for numerical calculations). I honestly think this is great thing for lab anyway—I’ve used these in classes for a while and they are quite successful.

Here is my numerical calculation jump-start guide.

Give them the data

What if you show a video (or two) of the physics and then just give them the data? So, let’s say you are looking at the magnetic field due to a bar magnet or a wire carrying current. Normally, students would use a magnetic compass to plot the magnetic field as a function of distance.

I could record the compass deflection values for different distances and then let them do the analysis. I don’t think this such a bad option. You can use the labs that you already have and then you just need to include some extra pictures or videos and then a data table.

At home labs

This seems like a great idea, but you might have to be flexible. Suppose you want to study pendulums—surely students can find some string with a mass on it to swing back and forth. They could find the time with their phone. What about the length of the string? This might require a little bit of thinking to get it to work—but I would suspect that most students could do it.

Another option is to have students think up their own labs. Maybe they could take inventory of their supplies and use that. Don’t forget of all the sensors on a smart phone—I’ll suggest PhyPhox as a great app.

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