Custom kits bring physics experiments home during the pandemic

Just because Oglethorpe summer physics students were learning from home, didn’t mean they had to miss doing hands-on experiments. Or miss collaborating on experiment results and analysis in real time with their peers. Or miss doing group projects with other students on the same equipment and experiments.

Professor Howard and his daughter Jacqueline test out the kit experiments.

We were able to reproduce the on-campus experience for Oglethorpe students this summer by designing custom home experiment kits to allow every student to perform the same physics experiments at home as on campus. Students collaborated on the results in real time in our online lab sessions, and then used my online office hours, just like they do when on campus, to go over experiment results, figure out how to analyze the data, and come to appropriate conclusions. Sometimes they showed up individually, often in groups. Just like when on campus.

Students reported that the kits made all the difference for them. One student said she learned much more than she expected from a four-week online course, and that she believed the kits helped students learn much more than any online simulation. Other students overwhelmingly agreed, according to the post-course survey.

How did we make this happen at Oglethorpe? First, we were motivated by the results from the emergency remote teaching done at the end of the spring semester. With so little time to convert to 100% remote teaching, the only approach possible, for me as a physics lab instructor, was to demonstrate the experiments via interactive live video conferences, and then share the data with the students for them to analyze. I also used online simulations a bit more than usual.

I noticed some students tuning out during the demos, and critically, noticed their analysis of the experimental data was less thorough. In particular, they struggled with estimating the sources and amount of uncertainty in the results, which is critical for science and engineering students to understand the implications of their experimental results.

As a retired telecommunications engineer, executive, and entrepreneur, I felt this problem could be solved. But existing home experiment kits were not matched to our experiments, were expensive, and in short supply. Instead, I designed and—with the help of another woodworker, my division chair—built some home experiment kits that matched the experiments we did on campus, and for a fraction of normal lab equipment costs to run the same experiments. I tested them with the help of my daughter, Jacqueline, an undergraduate student herself.

The students received their kits via mail or picked them up from the science center parking lot. Masks covering both nose and mouth had to be worn when picking them up, and I set the kits out for them to pick up one by one to maintain a separation of at least 10 feet.

The kits included experiments on measuring the acceleration of gravity, Newton’s 2nd law (force = mass x acceleration), centripetal force, moment of inertia, and conservation of momentum. To reproduce the group project normally done in-person, students came up with extensions to the standard experiments with the kits, formed groups with other students to extend the same experiment, and each created a different extension. They then collaborated on the results and co-wrote a professional level final report that summarized their individual, as well as teamwork. Just like we scientists and engineers do in our careers.

In a survey at the end of the course, students listed numerous benefits of the kits, including helping them to better understand uncertainty, learn experimental and troubleshooting techniques, and connect the theories to the real world and their own life experiences.

They also enjoyed the hands-on experience, improved their confidence in experimentation, felt better prepared for their career, and even showed improved focus as a result of having the kits. Many of these benefits appeared to be tied to the fact that all students had to perform all aspects of the experiments themselves, even though they were able to collaborate on the results with their lab and group partners. And an unexpected benefit: Students felt the structure eliminated a frequent problem of some students contributing less effort to labs and group projects. This feedback has made me rethink how I will structure labs even after we return to on-campus delivery.

For me as their teacher, I felt that the kits eliminated the challenges experienced in the spring, and allowed me to ensure they achieved all of the critical physics and laboratory learning goals in the 100% online course. Being in a pandemic lockdown does not mean we can’t teach students the things we usually do. We just have to be creative and adapt. There are still wonderful things that only happen in an on-campus setting, but our students need us to do the best we can in the present circumstances.

At Oglethorpe University, the faculty are very student-focused, and we have one of the best student-to-faculty ratios out there. This environment, and the support of leadership clearly made the innovation and success of this particular program happen, and I am eternally grateful to my colleagues and leadership for encouraging me to try this out. And from the survey, I’m confident my students are also grateful!

Daniel Howard is a Physics Instructor at Oglethorpe University. He received his M.S. in Electrical Engineering and his B.S. in Physics from Georgia Institute of Technology.

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