Can science be taught without a hands-on or experimental component? During this unfortunate pandemic, science educators have faced this unique challenge and schools and colleges around the world scrambled to try and correct this gap in training: such as Simulations, home experiments, experimental kits.
To make matters worse, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be feasible because different disciplines within science have either their own unique set of requirements or traditional practices. Fortunately, experiments in foundational physics courses can be performed at many scales…not only in terms of atomic to astronomical but also in terms of budgets, availability of materials or at different levels of sophistication.
But is there a universal solution to experimental physics training at undergraduate level when the students are ‘at home’? Though there is broad consensus on curricular aspects, we believe each place has its own challenges and opportunities in accordance to which the solution has to be worked out. Core courses in the Physics major at our university typically have integrated laboratory components, typically five to ten experiments spanning the whole range of verification to open inquiry within a semester. These are typically designed to go hand-in-hand with lectures, even completely blended in a laboratory classroom. And then there are supportive or elective courses with experiments. There are no turnkey apparati and the laboratory appears like a warehouse/workshop of components from screws and springs to Arduinos to 3D printer or a laser cutter. To go from such an excellent maker space, where students often build their experiments from scratch, to doing home experiments would be a shock. It indeed was, both to us and the students. But something needed to be done, and something more fulfilling than showing them simulated demonstrations on computer screens. They ought to get their hands dirty. To this end, we decided to courier kits to the students for a standardized lab-like learning experience.
Most reported interventions like this target introductory physics courses like our Physics for Biologists which spanned optics and thermal experiments. Coming to the core physics courses, the experiments ranged from [Mechanics experiments] in mechanics to complex pendulum systems and acoustic experiments in waves to to investigation of gas laws in thermal physics. The primary challenge was to keep as much rigour as in the regular laboratory experiments. To achieve that without using precision instruments, the students were asked to keep instrument limitations in mind and make detailed analyses of the data collected subject to the accuracy and precision available. Due to the non-standard nature of scientific instruments like light meter, accelerometer etc. available on mobile phones, only a photo/video output was requested. Videos combined with Tracker-like software allowed data acquisition in real time. The students wrote detailed reports just like they would do under normal circumstances.
By and large, the students appreciated hands-on activities but there were concerns as well. While the details are inside individual course pages, a few over-arching features and concerns: Firstly, the fact that some experimentation was possible at all distracted the students from the prevailing all-around inactivity. Students did take longer to perform the activities and some required more guidance than usual. Secondly, due to the limited number of experiments that could be performed this way, they felt the experience was insufficient when compared to usual in-person labs.
The consensus amongst the instructors is also that it was sub-optimal, but a required intervention during a difficult time. This approach may also serve introductory physics courses better compared to the core experimental skills required for higher studies in physics. On the brighter side, some experiments were good enough to be incorporated into the regular curriculum. When we compared our approach with a few places around the world that also didn’t give up or just relied on software solutions, the conclusions were similar. If required again, would we do things differently? Sure. There’s learning that we can carry forward from the experience. More importantly, does it lead to a change in the usual curriculum? Why not? In a vast and diverse country like India, we need students to gain such skills and therefore the model has relevance beyond the limited context of the pandemic.