The old adage that you learn through doing held true for Professor Helen Pask and her team as they scrambled to put experiments online for COVID lockdown. The team comprising academics, technical lab managers and demonstrators (lab teachers), rapidly prepared a series of videos that would allow students to “look over the shoulders” of their demonstrators, who manipulated apparatus and collected data for the students to analyse.

About the quick jump to fully online, Helen says,

We did what we needed to, but labs are much, much better in person. You should see the students with their heads down in the labs on campus, all working intensely. They only have the three hours to finish everything, so they are focused.

Professor Helen Pask

Doing without that in-person energy and engagement in session 1 reinforced its value and both students and staff really appreciate being able to have labs on campus this session.

I’ve had a few conversations with Helen about learning and teaching and she thinks hard about what works for her students. Her enthusiasm for new ideas and ways of reaching and involving students in physics is infectious.

Developing New Labs

Recently she and several other academics developed nine new three-hour labs for PHYS1210 Physics for Life Sciences. The Physics department teaches into other programs – this unit for Chiropractic and Medical Science students and there are other units for Engineering. The challenge is to design labs which enable to students to see how physics connects to the field they are pursuing.

The process of developing new labs goes through several stages: designing the lab, developing the lab notes and testing the activities before introducing the demonstrators and acting on feedback. My mind leaped to the famed Women’s Weekly recipe test kitchen: these labs are put through extensive practical review before being offered. Even then, it is still uncertain how students will respond. Helen puts a reflective question in each lab report, which helps her understand what students are taking from the labs.

When designing a lab, it helps to be able to use existing kit, but the mechanical workshop can help fabricate bespoke equipment. The labs are designed as stand-alone activities, independent of the order of the rest of the unit: some labs have only 10 sets of equipment catering for 20 students and labs are rotated each week to accommodate this.

Lab examples

One of the fundamental concepts in introductory physics units is measurement and its reliability. For the life sciences, this lab takes measurements of the human body in different ways and uses the collected data for analysis, offering practice in specifying uncertainty and understanding normal distributions.
(Did you know a sliding height measure is called a ‘stadiometer’? Also, that the ratio of human height to arm-span is around 1:1?)

Another lab investigates ultrasound, using the basic elements that go into an ultrasound machine. A lab on electricity covers electric shock, ECGs, voltages and skin resistance. A working mechanical model of the human arm is used to compare with students’ own arms’ functionality.

Assignments over quizzes

Covid-19 caused in-class quizzes to be replaced by assignments. The department observed some students in session 1 using the Chegg textbook/homework service to answer assignments and exams. For her first year unit (taken by engineers), Helen has put in a place a set of rules that has effectively discouraged ‘Chegging.’ She is trialling styles of assignment questions that require students to propose ‘designs’ based on the physics concepts taught in the unit. This leads to unique answers from students who seem to enjoy the challenge of deeper questions that relate to their interest in engineering technologies. Marking is facilitated by using Excel to calculate answers based on students’ design choices.

Choice helps heighten personal engagement with the subject. One assignment for engineers asks students to speculate on the physics behind an iPad cover’s magnetised closure. Another has students make a fact sheet explaining one of a range of phenomena or technologies that utilise the physics under study – for example, mag-lev trains, the value of the Earth’s magnetic field for protecting life, or cyclotrons. Students had little idea initially of what a fact sheet was, so support on design principles and format – transferable skills in communications – was built into the assignment.

Reflections on going online

Team collaboration and a lab community

For collaborating in a big team, Helen rates Microsoft Teams highly. The tech team introduced it in S1 to facilitate rapid communications between demonstrators and lab staff at the time when problems arose and needed to be resolved on the spot. It enabled demonstrators to coordinate their implementation of marking rubrics, feedback and responses to students. It will continue to be used as one means of sharing information, mentoring, and building a sense of community.

Lab books

Lab books are traditionally physical and kept on site. With the move online, there was a switch to electronic lab documents, allowing a range of options, such as typing via a Word document or hand-written notes, images of which could be uploaded. Practically, they found that asking for a PDF, no matter the original format, helped them be more efficient with marking. For demonstrators used to physical marking, online marking still tended to take more time.

The magic of physics

Helen has been using pre-recorded lectures, which has left out some of the in-person fun of demonstrating weird physical phenomena. However, she has taken some to the small group classes on campus. One simple trick drops a magnet through an aluminium tube, taking more time than you would expect (see this YouTube demo).

Student engagement and attendance

When labs went online, few students took advantage of drop-in Zoom sessions for help with labs. It was not clear why this was the case, but Helen speculates that without fixed deadlines students possibly delayed completing labs and/or were self-conscious about asking for help. If labs had to go online again, her preference would be to set deadlines, though with options for catch-ups if needed.

This session, students seem to prefer watching pre-recorded lectures in their own time. While on campus labs are compulsory and have full attendance, the small group classes are not compulsory and have about one third attendance. In the current climate, with fewer reasons to be on campus, low attendance might be more pronounced. However, class participation is a topic of discussion in teaching even in normal times. I think that many convenors similarly ponder compulsory vs non-compulsory classes and what each class contributes to student learning.

What has been your experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Feature photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

Posted by Natalie Spence

Senior Learning Designer in the Faculty of Science and Engineering

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