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Fostering creativity in introductory physics labs

Posted by Melissa on July 17, 2010

Newsweek has an article on the “creativity crisis” discussing the decline of American creativity as measured using the Torrance test of creative thinking. It reminded me of a Tomorrow’s Professor mailing from earlier this spring that included essay by Dan Edelstein titled “How is Innovation Taught?” Edelstein argues that one of the values of humanities classes is that they require students to be innovative, particularly at the introductory level, in a manner that science classes do not:

The real difference between studies in the humanities and the sciences resides in how their respective canons are assimilated. Students studying the American Revolution, for instance, are not only expected to know the names and dates of all the important players or events. They are also obliged to demonstrate that they can make sense on their own of the material; that they can develop original arguments about reasons, motivations, and outcomes for the past.

This point may seem overly subtle, but it becomes clearly evident in the case of final papers. If you provide the same answers as fifty other students on a calculus exam, you may very well get an A — assuming, of course, that those were the correct answers. But if you hand in a final essay for your American history course, in which you develop the same thesis as fifty other students, you would most likely not get an A, since original thinking is one of the criteria used to evaluate a student’s understanding and assimilation of material.

Furthermore, while science and math classes may on occasion demand that the students find innovative methods for solving problems, the humanities demand originality from day one.

I’d agree that introductory science courses often provide more limited opportunities for students to be creative as compared to introductory humanities courses. Nevertheless many science faculty are making concerted efforts to include more original inquiry, modeling, and problem-based instruction methods in introductory courses (for example, see the Chronicle article about Grinnell College’s revamped introductory bio course), and these methods require students to be more innovative. It’s not always possible to make a significant overhaul of an introductory science course, but turning the laboratory portion of an intro course into an opportunity for students to exercise their creativity and show innovation is relatively easy. After all, the best experimentalists are those who are creative and innovative, and there is never a single right way to explore a scientific question.

One approach to fostering creativity in introductory labs that I recently came across is the scientific community labs (SCL) developed by the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Maryland. While I often have students develop their own experiments to answer questions posed in lab, the SCL approach is more formalized without sacrificing the creative element.  The handout for students on the SCL webpage is particularly interesting in that it explicitly emphasizes that lab is 1) not meant to demonstrate some perfectly idealized truth and 2) not meant to teach concepts learned in the lecture part of the course. I prefer introductory labs that provide students the opportunity to gain experience truly experimenting, rather than taking and tinkering with data in order to produce an expected result that agrees with the textbook. Of course, there is a place for learning experimental techniques and precision measurement, but I don’t think an introductory mechanics lab is that place.  Additionally, the SCL approach requires that students take responsibility for their data collection because they will have to compare and defend their approaches with peers. I particularly like this peer review process as a way to address the student questions I get such as “How many measurements do we need to make?” or “Why does our data look bad?” These questions seem to indicate that students feel the instructor has responsibility for the quality of the data taken, whereas students should ultimately be responsible for owning their choices, methods, and results. Although I haven’t tried SCL, I’ll certainly consider the approach the next time I teach introductory mechanics.


3 Responses to “Fostering creativity in introductory physics labs”

  1. […] a good post posted earlier today, by Melissa, over on Confused at a higher level entitled Fostering creativity in introductory physics labs « Confused at a … that I suggest all of you read. I’ve included a few extracts to pique your interest!   […]

  2. quantummoxie said

    I’ve been doing something akin to this for years, though I can’t claim credit for creating the idea. When I teach introductory physics, I use Tom Moore’s Six Ideas That Shaped Physics and our lab instructor and I have, over the years, modified Tom’s original labs a bit, but the core idea is still there.

  3. Thanks for the post — I didn’t know about the SCL activities. There is so much Physics Education Research stuff out there, I love the wealth of options.

    I also just found out about the nTIPERS project out of Indiana — they’ve created a neat set of PER-inspired tasks for Newtonian Mechanics. I’ll be finding out more information on it (they don’t seem to have a website) and posting it on my blog at I also posted some posts from AAPT and PERC (Am. Assoc. of Physics Teachers and Physics Ed. Research Conf.) at that blog, and my sister blog on education technology — Maybe some more good ideas there?

    Let me know if there are particular posts on PER type of stuff that you’re interested in, I’m always open for suggestions.

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