The article “Introductory physics labs: We can do better” by Natasha Holmes and Carl Wieman (Physics Today, January 2018, page 38) might have been describing our department’s recent and dramatic reconstruction of the student laboratory curriculum. Last summer, after students for years had given the mandatory second-year physics lab a poor evaluation, our team was tasked with updating it. Instead of the traditional cookbook approach, we set out to simulate research in a guided environment. The aim was to instill in the students basic experimental skills, including thinking critically, planning experiments, understanding the limitations of lab equipment, and presenting results to colleagues.

Our pilot student lab was similar to the “structured quantitative inquiry labs” mentioned in the article. Over the semester, students performed four to six experiments on advanced topics that included dark energy, superconductivity, and optical spatial light modulation and on more classical subjects such as blackbody radiation, the Faraday effect, and ferromagnetic Curie temperatures.

For each experiment, students were given the main research goal and were introduced to the available equipment. They then formulated hypotheses and decided how to reach their goal. Lab instructors, usually graduate students, functioned as personal advisers, who discussed the ideas with the students and guided them through the experiment. We emphasize to the students that, as in real-life research, there are multiple ways to conduct each experiment. Students learned how to plan lab time, test different methods to decrease experimental errors, and recover from mistakes. Perhaps the biggest conceptual change in our approach is that instead of having to write traditional lab reports, about which both students and instructors complain, students went over their lab notebooks and results in a brief meeting with their instructor, just as they would present results to their adviser in a working research lab.

The lab instructors have radically revised the classic experiments by cutting redundant or dull elements and encouraging students to demonstrate independent decision making. Furthermore, students are invited to submit proposals for personal lab projects. If the personal projects are accepted, the students set up their own experiments and present their research in a poster session at the end of the semester. The project will gain them extra-credit points in their final grade. We also have detailed and flexible grading protocols to enable fair and consistent grading.

The new approach has received positive reviews from both students and lab instructors. Many say that either learning or teaching the lab introduced them to basic conceptual and experimental skills that appear nowhere else in the traditional course load; we were gratified to read in Holmes and Wieman’s article that students maintain those skills in subsequent years. We also often hear from students that the lab is “hard but fun.”

Our experience supports the authors’ findings, and we enthusiastically encourage other institutions to consider this approach to modernizing their teaching labs.

Natasha G.
Carl E.
Physics Today