We describe a pandemic-inspired, modern physics distance lab course, focused both on engaging undergraduate physics majors in scientific research from their homes and on building skills in scientific paper reading and writing. To introduce the experimental and analytic tools, students are first asked to complete a traditional lab assignment in which collections of Hexbugs™, randomly moving toy automatons, are used to model gas molecules and to confirm the ideal gas law. Subsequently, after consulting the literature, students propose and implement semester-long experiments using Hexbugs™, smartphones, and materials commonly found at home to model various concepts in statistical mechanics and electrical conduction. A sample project focused on the Drude model, in which Hexbugs™ on a tilted plane are used to model electrical conduction, is described in detail. Alongside the research projects, students write formal, peer-reviewed scientific papers on their work, modeling the professional publication process as closely as possible. Somewhat paradoxically, we found that the pandemic-inspired exigency of reliance on simple, home-built experiments enabled an increased focus on developing experimental research skills and achieving the laboratory learning objectives recommended by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

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Supplementary Material

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