Concepts and measurement skills in labs: thoughts from #AAPTSM14

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It’s Day 2 at #AAPTSM14 and I’ve had some down time catching up with conference attendees at the Starbucks near the conference centre so thought I’d reflect on the excitement so far. I kicked off the conference with a workshop by Eugenia Etkina and David Brookes about the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE). It was a wonderful, productive, and informative workshop that really got me thinking about the goals of hands-on experiments in learning physics. In particular, it has made me think very deeply about the balance between teaching physics concepts and teaching measurement and uncertainty. Here is my internal debate so far, on which I would appreciate some other perspectives.

Our approach to labs has been that in order for students to extract physical concepts from physical measurements, students require a deep understanding of measurement and uncertainty. Developing fundamental experimentation and data handling skills sets students up to succeed in higher level labs where they can discover cool physics concepts from more complicated experiments.

ISLE labs, in contrast, give students an opportunity to discover physical concepts through direct observation of physical phenomena, dealing with the limitations, assumptions, and iterations that go into measurement. The deep conceptual understanding of how physical models evolve from measurement and observation sets students up to think about the statistical elements of measurement in those and future labs.

In my mind, I have (probably inappropriately) put these two approaches on a dichotomous scale of focusing on measurement versus concepts. This is clearly not fair since both approaches actually tackle both, though I *think* it’s fair to say that the primary focus is on each extreme. At least, for our labs, while students focus on improving the quality of their measurement they begin to extract the physical concepts, especially the limitations and assumptions that go into the theoretical models they may or may not have seen before. We do not, however, require that they extract the physical concepts or assess them on that ability. We do require and assess that they take good quality data, reflect on their data, and iterate to improve.

What I am currently trying to balance is the order in which these should be developed. Surely it would be better to do both, but is there time to do both in a typical introductory physics course? We take about 18 full 3-hour labs to develop the experimental skills we care about, with no connection to the lectures or tutorials (aka recitations). I’m beginning to develop a sense that a studio physics approach could do both, but in a course where the labs are distinct from the lecture, something’s gotta give.

I’m looking forward to lots more lab discussion this week, especially with a very full poster session Monday night and an action-packed Experimental Skills presentation session Tuesday morning (yes, I’ll be presenting at both :p)! I’ll try to add follow-up blog posts as I get feedback and ideas from the super amazing researchers and educators here in Minneapolis this week.

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