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Objects and stories

Posted by Melissa on August 27, 2008

I’m going to litter this theorist’s blog with the thoughts of a condensed matter experimentalist for a moment. Among many of my favorite things about being a physicist at a liberal arts college is the opportunity to work closely with undergraduates on research. This summer I had three fantastic students working with me; I enjoyed the summer and appreciated the progress we made.

While I love working with undergraduates in the lab, there are aspects I find challenging. One of the challenges comes in deciding how to shape the research experience to maximize the learning experience of the students while continuing to move a project forward and address the relevant research objectives. I find it difficult to design research learning goals for my students in the same way I design classroom learning goals, in part because research lacks a tidy schedule and so much more is out of my control.

Some of the goals I have for my students are unsurprising: gaining an appreciation of how research is done, learning relevant laboratory skills and techniques, and exploring whether experimental physics is something they are interested in pursuing. For students having their first research experience, the gap between curricular lab work and genuine research can be large. Students must learn extreme patience—research is slow, things break, and often you must do things many different ways before you find a method that works. Things will go wrong and that is okay—you can’t be so afraid of making mistakes that you are paralyzed in your actions.

Recently, I’ve been considering the hands-on building, troubleshooting, and working with equipment aspect of experimental research. I’ve been reading Sherry Turkle’s book, Falling for Science: Objects in Mind, which explores how objects (broadly interpreted) encountered in childhood or adolescence influence students’ paths into science. I find this book interesting because, as an experimentalist, I love playing with laboratory toys, and I clearly remember it was working with things in lab that pulled me through some rough patches and excited me the most as an undergraduate physics major. But thinking back to pre-college days, I was drawn to physics by compelling stories and storytellers (which I became acquainted with through outreach programs at Argonne National Lab and Fermilab), not by objects. I wasn’t a tinkerer, a builder, or a gadget kid, and I generally tried to avoid getting my hands dirty. I think one of my hopes for the summer research experience, in addition to moving a research agenda forward, is to allow students to experience physics through playing, exploring, and gaining confidence with equipment in the lab, while not losing sight of the bigger storylines. Balancing the “object work” with the physics stories in ten weeks is a challenge, and I’m still figuring out what is the right ratio of the two.

While Turkle’s book talks about how interacting with objects can make someone fall in love with science, it would be interesting to hear how others, who weren’t originally drawn to science by objects, became interested in them, whether positive and/or negative experiences working with objects in the early science career impacted decisions to participate in or avoid future experimental work, and how faculty members can shape research experiences to best integrate the object lessons with the research storylines.

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