IOLab revitalizes physics experience for MechSE undergrads
Physics professor Mats Selen has developed a new approach for teaching lower-level physics labs that emphasizes students’ innovation. The changes, seen in Physics 101 (College Physics: Mechanics & Heat), will soon impact MechSE undergraduates when the new approach is introduced in the required course Physics 211 (University Physics: Mechanics).
In the physics department’s traditional lab configuration, students complete pre-made worksheets while following step-by-step instructions for each experiment. Selen’s new approach is much the opposite: students are given a short handout describing the hypothesis and goal of the experiment, with suggestions and tips for how to measure their data. They work in groups to design their own setup and carry out their experiment while writing a collective lab report.
“Students are a little resistant at first,” Selen said. “They’re used to being told exactly what to do. But about halfway through the semester they settle into a mode where they know this is what we do and they think it’s fine.”
“My lab section enjoyed using the IOLabs and understood lecture concepts better because of them,” said mechanical engineering sophomore Veronica Holloway. “We were more motivated and excited for the lab because it was on us to design it.”
Selen’s approach also relies on a device of his own creation, called the IOLab, that allows students to easily take their own data measurements in the lab or at home. The device’s sensors include light, high gain, analog/digital, battery, and force, as well as a microphone, accelerometer, gyroscope, thermometer, barometer, and magnetometer. It also has the capability to take an electrocardiogram (EKG), which Selen hopes to incorporate into future physics labs.
Selen got his idea from a simple development kit that had two circuit boards, one powered by USB and the other by a battery. The two boards could communicate with each using wireless radio chips. IOLab works in a similar way, with a USB-powered chip that connects the device to downloadable software. Measurements are displayed on the computer in real time as data is recorded. Users can add their data to an online repository and view other data sets and experiments.
Fellow physics professor Tim Stelzer worked with Selen to produce early prototypes of the device. Subsequent in-class trials returned positive responses from students, garnering Selen and Stelzer an NSF grant and funding from Macmillan Publishers. The engineering company Indesign produced recent iterations of the device.
In addition to its use in Physics 101 labs, Selen tested a previous iteration of IOLab in select Physics 211 sections, where Holloway experienced the new approach. She returned to the traditional format in Physics 212 (University Physics: Electricity & Magnetism) and found it to be tedious at times.
“The labs would tell you exactly what to do, but would look for exact conclusions that made the learning experience feel less helpful and less organic,” Holloway said. “I really liked how the 211 labs let us design and carry out our own sort of experiment using IOLab because it gave a much deeper understanding of the material.” She was also able to use her device to collect force data for a project in ME 270 (Design and Manufacturability).
IOLab is already gaining recognition across the country, as schools including Penn State University, Duke University, University of California Berkeley, and Stony Brook University incorporate it into experiments in their classrooms. Selen plans to bring his approach to Physics 102 (College Physics: E&M and Modern Physics) this fall and then to 211 and 212 in 2019.
“That’s my dream, that people find IOLab useful,” said Selen, who was named Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year in 2015 and is currently the Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Physics. “And that it can somehow help education. I can retire happy if that happens.”
Click here to explore IOLab.