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Renovated Labs Encourage Students
to Focus on Physics
November 1, 1999

The students in Physics 121 barely look up as a visitor walks in. They are engrossed in observing and recording two model carts gliding along a track to a predestined collision. A steady hum of animated conversation accompanies the gentle thud of carts converging and the whirring of the air current that propels them.

At one side of the room, a young woman reads a question to three other students seated around the same table and they debate the answer for a moment. A second student swivels on her chair and enters some data into a computer at her side.

The students are measuring the velocity of the carts before and after they meet and discovering how momentum is transferred during the collision.

"We're off by nine one-thousandths," says one student. "I think it's OK," responds another.

The scene is a lab session in a newly renovated physics lab in the Gant Science Complex. It's part of a multi-year initiative that Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, likes to call the Learning Spaces Renovation project.

"It used to be called 'Classroom Renovation,'" he says, "but not all learning takes place in a classroom. In physics, chemistry and biology, labs are a major part of the educational experience. Students learn an awful lot from hands-on activities and it's important that we have the right facilities to ensure that learning takes place."

The lab renovations began two years ago, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, with matching funds from the University. Four labs are complete; another two await renovation.

The new facilities will benefit the majority of the undergraduate population. Almost all students go through the introductory 100-level physics labs, which are divided into sections of 20 students. Each lab session can last up to three hours.

The new lab is bright and clean, with a drop ceiling that greatly

improves the room's acoustics. The students are seated on high, swivel-back chairs in groups of four around tables that jut out from the walls on two sides of the room. In the bays between the tables are computers, each with its own interface box and network connection.

"It's important that we have the right facilities to ensure that learning takes place."

Keith Barker
Director, Institute for
Teaching & Learning

The new layout is designed both to make it easier to listen to the instructor and to encourage discussion among students, says Phil Best, a professor of physics. Instead of being spread out in rows along benches, where at best they could talk to the person next to them, the students are seated around the tables in groups, where they can learn a lot from the increased dialogue.

"The layout makes group work a lot easier," says Allison House, a seventh-semester animal science major.

The group approach is increasingly being emphasized in undergraduate education. "We hear from business and industry people about the importance of working together - the team concept," says Doug Hamilton, a professor of physics. "Where better for students to learn that than here?"

Another advantage of the renovated labs is that they are wired for computers. For the collision experiment, the computers record some of the data directly from acoustical pulses, and help the students graph the information. Previously, students relied on stop watches and markers.

The new facilities, and especially the computers, have served as a springboard for changes in the curriculum. "Students used to have to write all the data down in a lab notebook," says Hamilton. "It's a lot quicker with the computers, and the students know before they leave class what the principal concept is and what the data analysis tells them."

Not only have the renovations enabled the faculty to make the labs more useful to students, adds Hamilton, "we can also do new experiments that were just not possible before."

The new facilities have also raised the morale of students, teaching assistants and faculty members. "The students working here feel confident using tools that are up-to-date," says Barker. "It's a motivational issue."

The importance of having up-to-date facilities is not lost on the students. "The technology that we get to use helps prepare us, because we're not going to use just stop watches in the real world," says Tony Papandrea, a third-semester pre-pharmacy major.

But long before these students graduate, they are reaping the benefits of the renovated labs. They are learning more and appear to be having fun.

"If we didn't have these new labs, physics would be a dead subject to many students," says Barker. "Now we've been able to make the subject come alive."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu