Stay-at-home Physics Labs

  • By Jenny Stein
  • 28 April 2020

In the scramble to bring lab instruction to students hunkered down indoors across the globe, professors with hands-on courses adopted strategies ranging from shipping equipment and tools directly to students to stretching remote learning technologies farther than ever before.

In the Department of Physics and Astronomy‘s Introduction to Laboratory Physics course, graduate student instructor Daniel Doucette had already been working on a less structured classroom format and research designed to promote independent student experiments before semester break. Coincidentally, before the outbreak, physics instructors around the world had been thinking along similar lines and had created a series of simulation programs that allowed students to conduct experiments on virtual electrical circuits.

“On the screen, you can have a circuit diagram and you can flip the switches, or you can move virtual ohm meters, volt meters and ammeters as if it were the real thing sitting in front of you. It’s about as close as you can get to the real thing without having it there,” said Doucette.

But for the more advanced Analog and Digital Electronics course, the timing wasn’t as ideal. Gurudev Dutt, associate professor of physics and astronomy, said the course is crucial for juniors and seniors who will take skills learned in the lab to the workforce in the next few years.

Before spring break, students had just wrapped up work with analog electronics and were poised to learn how to work new digital electronics equipment when they returned to campus. When Dutt realized campus would close, he worked with department officials to obtain 24 Arduino Microcontrollers, which feature programmable circuit boards and computer software, to ship to students at their residences.

“You can connect a temperature sensor, a pressure sensor, an optical sensor. You can connect motors. Microcontrollers are great for handling tasks that require a specific hardware interface or digital or analog signal. The computer can program the microcontroller to handle that task then the microcontroller keeps running and doing its job,” said Dutt.

Under normal circumstances, students would be expected to complete experiments that use the microcontroller’s sensors and temperature detection components. However, the kits that were shipped to students were stripped down to the most basic functions because equipment that would have supplemented experiments in the lab was too expensive to send. Because of the constraints, Dutt said he expects students’ final projects to be stripped down as well.

“Some of the special projects have specialized components. We have motors to control wheels, LCD displays. The last time I taught this class, a student built an app to text a message to the Arduino Microcontroller and display it on the LCD display. At that point in the class it’s the student’s own imagination and creativity about what they want to do. We have a variety of equipment to enable that and, obviously, they’re going to miss out on all that,” he said.

And while students and instructors miss the physical spaces they shared last semester, many are still thankful the virtual space allowed for the opportunity to connect and educate.

Reposted with permission from Pittwire, read full article here. Written by Deborah Todd.