Outside, Looking Up
Moving hands-on physics labs to an online format
Thursday, May 14, 2020
student in physics lab and students on zoom call

This semester, I am teaching two laboratory courses: Observational Astronomy and Modern Physics Lab. I love these two labs, working with my students in small groups—and at times with lots of equipment—and this semester I got to try my hand at switching them over to an all-online format.

Observational Astronomy lab is an inquiry-based lab course about understanding astronomical data, asking good scientific questions, and evaluating what answers can be drawn from those data. We analyze data from professional astronomical datasets, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Kepler mission. We meet together on Zoom to go over the astronomical dataset being used this week, and then I place them into breakout rooms with their lab partners and circulate through the groups to see if they have questions. It feels surprisingly similar to doing this in class. For our observational component, instead of using telescopes, I encourage them to go outside and look up—some may even have binoculars or a small backyard telescope to use, but most are just observing with their eyes. The important thing is getting them outside and observing the sky, however that works for them.

Our brand-new Modern Physics lab debuted this semester, where we replicate famous experiments or research topics from twentieth-century physics, such as Marie and Pierre Curie’s study of radioactivity and Einstein’s photoelectric effect. Since the students can’t come into the lab and use the equipment anymore, we’ve had to get creative. For our superconductivity experiment—this is one you might have seen before where a magnet begins to levitate—one group had completed it before break while another group had completed the Franck-Hertz experiment. Both groups got together on Zoom to share screens, trade data, and describe how their data were taken so each can still complete their own data analysis and write reports on the experiments. For another experiment, students are programming in MATLAB to simulate some radioactivity data for analysis and writeup.

Ultimately, while students can’t precisely reproduce the experience of working with lab equipment, they are still getting physics, data analysis, writing, and a little extra programming experience.

Niescja Turner, Ph.D., is the Zilker Professor of Physics in Trinity’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. She studies physics of near-Earth space and issues of equity in STEM.

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