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Great question from a prospective physics teacher—is there a canon of physics labs?

August 14, 2011

Today, I got this fantastic email from a student at Olin who has fallen in love with physics and designed her own major, which is so cool. My first question is how could we get more engineering students to fall in love with physics to the point where they’d major in physics?

But this student’s question is more pressing, and I’ve quoted the body of her email below.


None of you know me, but this summer I discovered the awesome world that is all of your blogs (and those of many other teachers), and I’ve been reading them a lot. I’ve been inspired by John’s recent post to reach out and ask you all for help with an idea I’ve been thinking about recently. I should probably start by actually introducing myself:

My name is Becca, and I’m a junior at Olin College, a small engineering school in Massachusetts. Even though I’m at engineering school, I’ve realized that I actually love physics, not engineering, so I designed my own major so that I have a “concentration” in physics. Also, I plan on becoming a physics teacher after I graduate.

So, the reason I need your help: in my made-up major, I’ve realized that it’s actually possible for me to graduate without ever taking a physics lab class. But it’s important to me that I have some lab experience. So I’d like to do an independent study next semester in which I complete various physics experiments. My problem is that since I have no experience with physics labs, I’m not really sure where to start in planning this independent study. I’m hoping that since you all have more experience than I do you can give me some advice on what experiments I can do to learn about experimental equipment and procedures related to mechanics and/or E&M. Here are some more targeted questions that I’ve been thinking about:

  1. For the sake of a well-rounded physics education, what types of experiments should I be able to do?
  2. Is there a way I can structure the semester to give the work I do some sort of overarching story? Perhaps a question or design goal that I can spend the semester addressing? (What would that question be?)
  3. What equipment will be most important?
  4. When I teach physics, I want my students to learn through inquiry/experimentation. What equipment/procedures/etc. do I need to be familiar with in order to be able to facilitate that inquiry for a typical high school physics class?

Okay, I’m sorry this e-mail is so long. If you are still reading, thank you! If you have any amount of advice for me, however small, I will definitely appreciate it!

This is something I’m going to think about for a bit and try to come up with some advice for, but I realized this student should not have to wait for me. I can kick this out to my blog, and hopefully many people will chime in with their own advice.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:59 am

    Here’s the email I sent Becca:

    Hi Becca,

    I assume you’ve already done the typical intro physics labs involving carts, motion detectors, circuits etc. At my school, the junior year and beyond is focused on long-term experiments so students can experience the planning, execution, and analysis stages of experiments. There is a canon of modern physics experiments (photoelectric effect, Millikan oil drop, e/m measurement, Stern-Gerlach, Rutherford scattering, Blackbody radiation, Galaxy doppler, Davisson-Germer electron diffraction among them) but I’m not sure they’re the best to focus on for someone who wants to teach. With my teachers I have them design, build, and test a musical instrument over the course of a year. They’re full time teachers trying to get their physics license so they’re not working on it as much as you might think. I’ve done the same project with undergraduates and it usually takes a semester. The idea is that you have to plan, do, and analyze to understand the experimental process. I would imagine that your engineering program has something similar, though the analysis process might be a little different.

    That’s my two cents for now. I’ll also post this on John’s blog. Thanks for the great questions!


  2. August 14, 2011 10:41 am

    Are the experiments more important than the experience? I didn’t get much out of the physics labs that I’ve taken in college because it was basically just following directions on a worksheet. I fell in love with physics in high school because we had fairly open ended labs where we designed and made our own spaghetti bridges and mousetrap cars and found out what worked and what didn’t. What if you just watched Mythbusters and found something on there to do?

    • Becca permalink
      August 15, 2011 2:25 am

      I think I’m looking for something between the two experiences you describe. I don’t want to be doing “cookbook” type labs where I just mindlessly follow a bunch of directions, but I do want some experience with more formal equipment and procedures (as opposed to building things with whatever common materials I can find). Mythbusters is cool, but I’m not sure it would give me the kind of experience I’m hoping for.

      • August 18, 2011 7:07 am

        I think the physics by inquiry labs could be great—if you spent half to 3/4 of your time working through one of those books, you’d learn a ton about both science and science teaching. Then you could spend the rest of your time on some sort of advanced lab, like NMR, that would give you more of a feel for what scientific research is like.

  3. August 14, 2011 10:44 am

    I wonder if working through reformed physics labs might be useful. I’m thinking:

    Physics by Inquiry

    Real Time Physics

    Any other suggestions?

  4. Becca permalink
    August 15, 2011 2:20 am

    Thanks for posting this John. I’ve gotten lots of great advice already (though of course I’d still appreciate more!). I’m not really surprised, but I am incredibly grateful for how nice and helpful everyone is! Now I’m working on following up on all the ideas I’ve been given. You guys are amazing!

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