Lab groups and peer evaluations

This past year, I have been working to develop a series of labs that focus on scientific skills, as opposed to teaching physics content. These changes are motivated in part by the pandemic: I want to have authentic laboratory experiences that students can complete at home with limited resources. However, these reforms are also motivated by the literature which suggests that lab is better suited to the teaching of such skills as opposed to content:

  • Holmes, Natasha G., and Carl E. Wieman. “Introductory Physics Labs: We Can Do Better.” Physics Today 71, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 38–45.
  • MacIsaac, Dan. “Report: AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum.” The Physics Teacher 53, no. 4 (April 1, 2015): 253–253.

Lab groups are one of the necessities of such a large class. In order to respect the TA’s time and keep the grading load manageable, students must turn in reports as groups. Fortunately, I also think that learning to work in a scientific team is also an important goal of the lab experience.

This past semester, I have been trying to use Moodle to manage the lab groups and CATME to do peer evaluations. However, this has yielded two problems:

  1. The TAs must keep the lists in Moodle up to date and there is an unclear chain of command with regards to group management. Also, this requires a rather sophisticated understanding of Moodle and makes changing/managing groups difficult.
  2. The CATME protocol, while fantastic, is, I think, insufficiently transparent. Moreover, I must manage it. This is, frankly, too much load for me. I need a system that the TAs can successfully manage on their own.

I really like the multiplicative nature of the CATME results. A plan with which I am currently toying involves:

  • Have a number of points equal to the number of members in the team.
  • Each team member would distribute these points to their team members. Perhaps this would be done for a few different categories.
  • There would also be one optional point that could be given to someone who really deserves an extra boost. This would be a bonus: if everyone in the team neglects to do it, they will still all get ones (i.e. their score would be equal to their actual grade).
  • The result would be scaled in such a way that the final multipliers are between 0.7 or so and 1.05.

Obviously, this needs to be flushed out, but there are some key points for improvement here.

Data Modeling Lab Based on COVID-19 for IPLS Students

When UMass-Amherst decided to go to remote learning after spring break, I needed one more lab for my Physics 132 – IPLS II course. This course has a traditional setup where the lab is run semi-autonomously from the “lecture” portion of the course. For the last two iterations, however, the lab has been run with a different focus based on data analysis. Thus, a lab focused on understanding the exponential growth patterns and fitting the parameters fit well with our education objectives and could be done with publicly available data.

While this may not be “physics” per se, I think that such a lab makes sense:

  • It uses all of the skills our students have been developing over the course of the semester.
  • It is topical.
  • It is probably of interest to the predominately life-science students who comprise the student population of 132.
  • It will hopefully help students see that the skills they learned in physics lab are not unique to physics, but instead valuable to all of science.

The lab we gave to students can be found here as as pdf. Feel free to use etc. If you are an instructor and would like access to the full suite of materials including the data we used, the solutions, and rubric, please complete this form and we will get them to you.

A new direction for the Physics 132 labs

During the Spring 2019 semester, in addition to several changes in the lecture portion of the course, Paul Bourgeois, David Nguyen, and I continued to make changes to the laboratory portion of Physics 132. Motivated by this article from Physics Today, we decided to make our labs much more focused on teaching fundamental data analysis skills as opposed to physics concepts. We also added structural changes to the lab portion to promote in the students a sense of importance and ownership of what we were trying to teach. In general, I think that these changes were, by the end of the semester, positively received and provide a strong way forward for future lab developments in Physics 131 and other courses within our department.

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Thinking about integrated labs in the Team-Based-Learning Format of P131

As we near the end of the semester, Physics 131 is once again finishing up with a unit on the statistical interpretation of entropy (not a typical topic for an introductory algebra-based course). This unit gets started with two labs: one systematically playing the famous Monty Hall problem and a second models the free expansion/compression of a gas using coins. While I do not have strong evidence for this belief, I feel that these two labs are the strongest two labs we do all semester. Students seem to really engage with these two labs and the act of doing the experiments really seems to add to student understanding in ways I do not see with other labs in the course. Even our much celebrated lab investigating the bio-mechanical ground-reaction forces of the human jump doesn’t seem to engage our students as much. Why? What is the “magic sauce” of these two labs? How can we modify the other labs of the course to achieve these same ends?

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