Center for Teaching and Learning

April 2, 2020

52 – Re-Designing the Labs for the Introductory Physics Sequence (Version 2)

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  • Jack Olsen, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences, UW Seattle
  • Suzanne Brahmia, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences, UW Seattle
  • David Smith, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences, UW Seattle


During AY2018-19, we re-designed the introductory physics labs inspired by the question: What measurable learning objectives can the laboratory instructional space uniquely address? Our first iteration was presented at SOTL 2019. The re-designed labs, based on the Investigative Science Learning Environment labs (ISLE-Homepage, focus on four primary learning objectives: 1) to develop agency with measurement tools, 2) to design experiments centered on the measurable quantities used to calculate physical quantities that then characterize systems, 3) to communicate professionally, and 4) to work collaboratively.

Our second iteration in the re-design incorporates the many lessons learned from AY2018-19. One critical lesson is that “Less is More.” For instance, we halved the number of labs. By extending each lab from one week into two, we found enough time for students to delve into experimental design. Additionally, we reduced the complexity of the available equipment. With simpler equipment, we can focus on the more difficult aspects of experimental decision-making rather than on introducing each new piece of equipment and its use. The other critical lesson we learned was on finding the balance between “Less is More” and having too little. For instance, a handout is necessary to get students started in the lab. However, one page of text is more than enough. Similarly, the ISLE rubrics are necessary to communicate our expectations for written lab reports. However, it took several iterations to find an optimized means for conveying the rubrics to the students.

Additionally, this second iteration includes structural elements being used by similar lab classroom environments found at Michigan State University (Funkhouser et. al., 2019 and at UW Bothell (via correspondence with Matthew Gliboff). Both inspire us to use lab notebooks alongside written work. The labs at Bothell provided a template for incorporating Peer Reviews and developing scientific writing skills.