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?