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Exploring the laboratory landscape: How much and to what end?

Posted by Melissa on July 23, 2009

I’m at the Topical Conference on Advanced Laboratories, and the first day has highlighted several questions about the laboratory curriculum that have been rolling around in the back of my mind. The conference considers advanced labs to be any labs beyond intro physics, and participants come from a wide range of institutions. One obvious topic of discussion was the objectives for advanced labs, and the list was amazingly lengthy, ranging from experimental and technical skills to conceptual understanding of physics topics to exposing students to the nature of science and allowing students to practice collaboration, interpersonal, and communication skills.  Such lists are particularly daunting considering that at many schools there are only two or three semesters of lab beyond introductory physics.

Another clear message today was that there is no standard advanced lab course or curriculum. This morning began with presentations by Isaac Chung about MIT’s junior lab and Eric Black about Caltech’s senior physics lab. These are two lab courses with significant reputations in the physics community, but they are quite different in their approaches. At Caltech, there are no reports (oral or written) and little emphasis is placed on data analysis. MIT’s advanced lab on the other hand has 70% of the grade wrapped up in PRL-like papers and APS style oral presentations with extensive follow-up questioning/feedback by faculty. For some participants, there was a feeling that the excessive demands placed on the advanced laboratory courses made them pressure cookers both for students and faculty, while others like Derek Kimball at Cal State East Bay reported on making the advanced lab accessible to first-years and sophomores with the aim of building student interest and making the physics major more welcoming. Carl Grossman of Swarthmore College presented Swat’s approach to advanced lab that utilizes faculty research expertise and spreads the responsibility for advanced lab among five different faculty members (if no one is on leave).

At Carleton, beyond the ten weeks of introductory physics, students are required to take three additional ten week courses that have a significant lab component: Physics 228 Atomic and Nuclear Physics, Physics 235 Electricity and Magnetism, and Physics 342 Contemporary Experimental Physics. (I’m not considering elective classes with labs.) While this seems fairly standard compared to other physics departments, it doesn’t represent an even distribution between theory and experiment in the curriculum. Nearly all physics courses include a theoretical component, if by theoretical one refers to developing mathematical descriptions and models of physical phenomena. Thus it’s not entirely accurate to claim that the current undergraduate physics curriculum represents an even distribution between theory and experiment. Perhaps physics departments ought to consider how to integrate experimental work more meaningfully throughout the curriculum and how to address the challenges that result when the objectives for the experimental curriculum grow too demanding.

The question of what’s the appropriate line between providing novel lab experiences that require practical troubleshooting and ensuring that you don’t unduly frustrate students came up in several discussions I had today. This question often reminds me of the wonderful essay by Martin Schwartz titled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”. The essay is focused on graduate education, emphasizing the importance of “productive stupidity” when faced with the unknown, but I think it is worth considering more broadly. Schwartz writes:

“One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answer right… I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries.”

Labs seem like a great opportunity to help students make this transition. In curricular labs, the balance is to allow the genuine exploration and (limited) frustration to unfold, while also introducing particular conceptual ideas or experimental techniques.

Other interesting questions that emerged in today’s discussions and presentations:

  • Where does one draw a line between research experiences and advanced lab courses. Do we even need to worry about such a line? Do we expect advanced lab courses prepare students for research? Can most of the benefits of advanced labs be gained by genuine undergraduate research experiences? Or is the breadth of advanced labs important?
  • How do we emphasize the importance of the lab notebook? Is there a role for electronic lab notebooks? Can we develop a lab notebook evaluation rubric that can be applied across labs/institutions?
  • In physics, we often talk about the cumulative, integrated nature of the theory curriculum. Should we think more carefully about how to create a cumulative, integrated experimental curriculum?
  • Are the objectives for the advanced lab curriculum what they should be? Considering the lengthy list of objectives often mentioned in relation to the lab curriculum, do we allot a reasonable number of course hours to meet these objectives?

4 Responses to “Exploring the laboratory landscape: How much and to what end?”

  1. johntrigg said

    Just came across your post in my regular blog search on electronic lab notebooks, and, in particular, the question ‘is there a role for electronic lab notebooks?’. There’s a number of posts on this topic on covering their use in industry and academia. Might be of interest.

  2. arjendu said


    Quick comment: I’d agree that all courses with a lab could be evenly split between the mathematical analysis of physical phenomena (theory), and the hands-on exploration and analysis of data from such exploration (experiment), although they frequently are not, depending on who is teaching the course, of course :-). Do note that, at Carleton, as far as entirely non-lab classes go, we require 10 weeks of Classical and Computational Mechanics, 5 weeks of Quantum, and 5 weeks of Thermal and Statistical Physics beyond Intro. Given what I understand to be the nature of Contemporary (long labs, well beyond the 4 hours assigned, and ‘lectures’ focused on analysis and context for the lab work) we are perhaps closer to ‘even split’ than some ?

  3. Melissa said

    John, thanks for bringing that website to my attention. I’ll have to explore it.

    Arjendu, based on discussions at the conference, it seems we are average when it comes to balance. As you point out, the core curriculum is more balanced than the curriculum for students who are grad-school bound. I think the term/semester calendar difference also might have an impact on what we can do with our lab curriculum. While we tend to think of one of our term courses as equivalent to a semester course, when it comes to labs I’m uncertain about the equivalence. For example, a standard semester-based curriculum might have two intermediate level courses with labs, and then a semester of advanced lab. In a semester with 14 weeks of labs, those students will have approximately 42 labs as a part of the core curriculum. (Because lab work often occurs beyond designated lab hours, I think weeks of labs might be the best accounting metric.) In our case, we have three ten week courses that include labs, so the maximum number of labs is 30, but often we don’t have a full tenth week in a term. But this effort at counting/accounting sends the discussion into details. The interesting questions are about the larger picture, including considering comprehensive objectives and structure for the lab curriculum, what makes for good lab experiments/experiences, etc.

  4. […] Advanced physcis labs — What we expect from them, what we should expect from them, how to change them.  My experience with advanced lab didn’t teach me all that much, and wasn’t all that rigorous.  I didn’t mind, since I had my mind made up to be a theorist anyway.  Plus, we were all required to do a senior research project, which filled in many holes, along with our fairly demanding modern physics lab.  But a more challenging advaced lab might have been like foul-tasting medicine that would make me better off today. […]

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