Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Back from the BFY conference

Posted by Melissa on July 31, 2012

I’m just back from the ALPhA Topical Conference on Laboratory Instruction: Beyond the First Year (BFY) and a bit of the AAPT meeting. I walked away from the BFY conference with mixed feelings. The conference itself was fabulous (with the exception of an over-packed schedule): lots of hands-on workshops, valuable conversations, and interesting glimpses at what is going on in the laboratory curriculum at other institutions. I brought home many ideas for new experiments, approaches, and assessments to employ in my lab courses. However, I also came away from the conference with a sense that our department as a whole needs to spend some time thinking about the laboratory curriculum (a sentiment shared by another Carleton colleague who also attended the BFY conference).  Some of challenges in the laboratory curriculum have implications beyond the upper level physics lab courses in the department, and as an individual, I can’t transform my mixture of enthusiasm and concern into a solution to these challenges. I won’t go into gory detail of my reflections on Carleton’s laboratory curriculum, but I’ll highlight one example.

One of the unique challenges at Carleton is the structure of our introductory sequence. We require only one ten-week term of introductory physics (usually split into two five-week courses) before students begin the sophomore-level physics sequence. (A discussion of the intro sequence at Carleton is a blog post unto itself.) Because the intro sequence is only one term long, our students usually have done only  9 physics labs before they enroll in their first sophomore-level lab. Most physics students who have had a standard year-long intro sequence will have had 25-30 labs in the first year, providing many more opportunities to explore and practice a variety of laboratory skills before they move to more advanced labs. That disparity puts some unique demands on the upper level labs at Carleton as compared to what is expected in intermediate and advanced labs where students have already had a full year of laboratory instruction at the introductory level.

Another challenge in updating the lab curriculum that is not unique to Carleton is cost. For example, there are a number of amazing single-photon experiments have been developed to demonstrate quantum phenomena, but implementing this suite of labs from scratch costs on the order of $15-20k.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the BFY conference is that it reminded me that there are a lot of physicists at many different types of institutions who are enthusiastic about teaching experimental physics and incredibly creative in how they approach the endeavor. Connecting with this broader advanced lab community is immensely valuable.

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One Response to “Back from the BFY conference”

  1. Joss Ives said

    Hi Melissa,

    There’s a pretty big disconnect locally between our intro and upper-year labs to the point that I spend some of their first encounters with the upper-year labs undoing things from the intro labs. From that perspective, the one term of intro physics labs doesn’t sounds so bad.

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