Introduction to Physics - Algebra-based sequence (PHYS 111, 112, 115) and calculus-based sequence (PHYS 221, 222).

Serves 5 courses, approximately 1800 students per semester. Labs have 20-24 students working in pairs, and one instructor (typically a graduate student).


Structure of a typical lab

One of the main goals of our labs is to have students begin to understand how experimental science works, and how to draw conclusions based on data. These objectives are poorly served by the traditional model of labs, in which students are asked to blindly follow a long set of detailed instructions for both the experiment and the data analysis, without much required reflection and certainly no room for individual exploration.

Our labs, like real scientific research, begin with a question, written by the instructor on the board. The example shown below corresponds to our lab "Magnetic field inside a solenoid"

This is followed by a short discussion, in small groups or as a class, facilitated by the instructor. Students are asked to come up with hypotheses, and to articulate a rough plan of how this question can be answered experimentally.

Only then are students invited to start following the write-up in their manuals (this is the write-up for the present example).

The first hands-on activity in the lab is usually simple and very guided: it is meant to help students familiarize themselves with the equipment.

After that, students turn their attention back to the main exploration. At this point, the manual offers as little direct instructions as possible. Within the constraints of practicality and safety, students are given the freedom and responsiblity to design at least part of the experiment, to pick the quantities to be measured, and to select how the data will be analyzed. The instructor's role is to guide students in this process. Students are constantly engaged and required to actively participate in all the steps of an experiment: completing the activities is not possible without understanding.

Each lab period is capped with another short discussion where the class mimics a scientific community: results are shared and compared, and the group discusses whether the question of the day was answered.

As homework, students are required to write a lab report. This paper is NOT expected to be the formal, and relatively long, reports typical of more advanced classes, but rather focuses on students learning to articulate the logical connection between the data and the conclusion. Details about the lab report and how it is graded can be found here.


Instructor training

Instructors play a crucial role in these labs. Every graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State University takes a class on teaching during their first semester (PHYS 501). The discussion topics range from a basic understanding on how people learn, to very practical aspects of class management. A lot of emphasis is placed on a model of instructor as guide and facilitator.

The lab team for each course (coordinator and instructors) have a weekly meeting where both technical and pedagogical aspects of the labs are discussed.


For further information, please contact Paula Herrera-Siklody.