Over the W17 semester, Nadim Boukhira and Jean-François Brière have been creating and refining physics lab activities that simulate authentic scientific inquiry.
The project began with interviews with student focus groups, and the gathering of input on how current Science students perceive “cookbook” approaches to lab assignments. A majority of the students interviewed criticized the repetitiveness of lab formats, and emphasized the lack of opportunity given to students to conceive and carry out experiments of their own design. In response to the question “Have your lab activities and assignments given you the opportunity to think and act like a real scientist?”, the majority responded with an unambiguous “No.”
“I was very disappointed by the superficial effect that lab activities seemed to have on the students,” said Jean-François , ” but at the same time some encouragement came from the positive attitude that students showed when discussing a prototype lab activity in which students did have the chance to design their own experiment”.
A subsequent phase of research and reading led the team to identify contemporary articles and guidelines that could inform an alternate approach to lab design. The 2014 AAPT report Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum defines the broad learning outcomes necessary for a program based on authentic scientific practices. UBC’s Learning Goals for First Year Physics Laboratory assembles a more detailed list of foundational lab practices. The pedagogical approach of model-based inquiry (Zwikl et al 2013) suggests a lab design process less oriented to the production of right answers, and more inclined to 1) spurring student questions regarding the theoretical assumptions underpinning the experiment, and 2) heightening student awareness of measurement uncertainties. Traditional “write-ups” of lab procedures and results can either advance or obstruct a process of genuine scientific thinking, depending on how the writing is contextualized; Moscovitz and Kellogg (2013) outline a framework for authentic writing practices in the physics laboratory curriculum.
As March turned into April, the development and testing of prototype versions of new labs began, with a heightened emphasis in two areas: provoking critical thinking about assumptions related to theoretical models, and raising awareness of measurement uncertainties. Nadim prepared new labs for Astrophysics and for Waves and Optics. For the latter, new introductory PowerPoints and videos were developed with the goal of ensuring that students came to the lab well prepared, with a clear understanding of objectives, equipment, and procedures. Additionally, to emphasize authentic scientific practices in the communication of results, a revised reporting format was developed that asked students to pay more attention to narrative continuity. They were also prompted to evaluate more critically the validity of their results, and to posit future refinements in measurements or changes in procedure – in other words, the kinds of suggestions they might make if they were reporting to the director of a research laboratory.
Subsequent student focus group interviews suggested a higher level of engagement and learning in the revised labs. A majority of students agreed that the revised lab activities created opportunities to think and act in the manner of real scientists. Accordingly, “The project will continue its life in the fall with the modification of additional lab activities in Mechanics and Waves and Optics,” says Nadim. “In all cases, the goal will be to encourage students to foster their critical thinking skills and their abilities to assess and improve their lab results.”