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  November 12, 2001

Introductory Physics Labs
Puzzle Undergraduate Students

The physics department is puzzling students. Under a new curriculum for introductory physics labs, undergraduates are being expected to think outside the box.

Instead of following recipe-like steps and formulas, students must devise a way to solve the problems of the week. They have to come to lab prepared, having planned an experiment that will help them push their understanding of physics beyond what they learn in class.

Teaching assistants often answer their questions with questions. The new approach does stimulate thinking, says Valerie Vu, a first-semester math major. "It gets us thinking, and helps us apply what we learn in the lecture." The pre-lab questions, she adds, "force you to lay out your plan."

A typical experiment has the students using masses and pulleys to determine acceleration due to gravity.

The new way of teaching, launched in the spring, is supported by the physics department's recently renovated teaching laboratories. Students use the new computers to help them collect data.

Amy Thornton, a third-semester biology education major, says the new labs put responsibility for learning on the student: "It's up to you to figure out if you know what's going on."

It can be hard work for the students, however, to play a more active role in learning and getting fewer answers from the TAs sometimes leads to frustration. "You basically don't know what you're doing sometimes," Thornton says.

Frustration can be part of the learning process, says Gloria Ramos, a school of education graduate student who revised the curriculum last year using a model developed at the University of Minnesota. The idea of making students more independent, she says, is to simulate research.

"It gives students the feeling that they're actually doing experimental lab work," she says.

Allowing the students latitude in approaching a problem brings out their inventiveness, says teaching assistant Albeiro Restrepo. "Since everyone has a different view of the problem," he says, "they come up with different ideas."

Phil Best, a professor of physics and associate department head for undergraduate education, says the new method is designed to facilitate student involvement in the learning process. Students learn to solve problems with increasing independence. "People have to construct their own knowledge," he says.

The approach offers students a paradigm for solving problems, says Best. During the lab, they first draw pictures and organize information. Then they describe what's happening physically, solve the equations, and calculate the answer. Finally, they evaluate their answer to see if it's reasonable. "This is the way that experts solve problems in all fields," he says.

Justin Billard, a first-semester engineering physics major, says the method is a natural way to solve problems. Halfway through the semester, he sees its strengths. "I'm beginning to like it because it simplifies the process," he says. "I find that I'm getting efficient at it. It's more of a visual way of recording what your mind already does."

Billard says working in groups helps him learn the material. "In my current group," he says, "they are at the same level as I am, and have the same desire to learn. It's not just me solving the problem."

Working together is another of the aims of the redesigned curriculum.

Elizabeth Taylor-Juarros, a TA, says she sees lively collaboration within the lab groups. "Everybody has their own parts to offer," she says. "They get so excited that they understand, and they explain to others. The best way I can tell they're learning is when I'm suddenly not having to be the one that's explaining things to them."

Richard Jones, an assistant professor of physics, is working on making revisions to the introductory labs for students who plan to major in physics. He will use a different model, but also plans to make the labs closer to research.

Jones is considering making a long-term project part of the labs for physics majors. Students, working in teams, would be given a set of possible problems to investigate. "Then they shape the question, according

to what their interests are, and build an apparatus," he says. After collecting data, students would write a detailed report.

"The need for physics majors," Jones says, "is to be able to carry what they've learned in class one step further in lab."

Brent C. Evans

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