Moving Physics Labs Online

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Public health considerations impose challenging constraints on the delivery of teaching and learning. These challenges are particularly acute when it comes to undergraduate laboratory practice. Working in pairs or teams at workstations will not be possible. Lab through-flow of students will need to be carefully managed and monitored. Lab capacity will be greatly reduced, perhaps dropping to 20% of normal capacity or less. Instructor and support staff student interaction will need to comply with social distancing recommendations for the duration of the lab. Stating the obvious – it will not be possible to run our undergraduate labs as we have done in pre-COVID 19 times.

Tracker Video Analysis
Tracker used to analyse rotational motion.

So how are we going to deliver on module/programme learning outcomes? The spectrum of possible responses ranges from complete capitulation (we just can’t deliver the laboratory component safely ensuring equity of opportunity and experience for all students) , to full delivery. I would like to explore here how we might shift the delivery ‘pointer’ towards the latter.

Firstly, we are not alone. Universities across the globe are grappling with the same problems. A useful starting point might be to read the article by Heather R Taft – How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. I have used the three options considered in the article as a starting point for physics:

  • New Labs (Instructor Created Labs): Modify existing labs so that they can be completed by individual students in a shorter time within the lab. Students might be required to complete an online pre-lab exercise or exercises to ‘qualify’ to do the lab. Analysis and report could be done online. An extreme version of this might be an ‘At-Home’ lab (see article).
  • Lab Kits: A number of commercial offerings are available in the physical and biological sciences (see article). The Arduino platform together with the rapid development of all things related to the Internet of Things (IoT) offers some inexpensive options for introductory and even more advanced labs in the physical sciences, e.g. mechanics (statics and dynamics), electricity, magnetism, light, sound ….. Another useful option is the use of freeware such as Tracker video analysis software to analyse short videos of falling bodies, projectile motion (tennis balls), rotating shafts, etc. shot with digital cameras (smartphone). PhyPhox is also an interesting smartphone app which claims to turn a smartphone into a Physics Laboratory. The PhysicsOpenlab site is an excellent resource for the more adventurous DIY physics student.
  • Virtual Labs and Simulations: Again a number of companies are established or have emerged offering reasonably priced custom labs to support online learning. As we have quite a range of Pasco equipment in our Physics labs, the Pasco Virtual Laboratory is worth considering. Labster is also worth a visit. However, there are many excellent opensource physics simulation ‘experiments’ available. A particularly wide range of good quality offerings has been developed by the University of Colorado at Boulder, as part of its PhET project.

Comments, tips, useful links welcome.

2 thoughts on “Moving Physics Labs Online

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