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Ann M. Reagan, College of Southern Maryland, La Plata, MD (email@example.com) AAPT Winter Meeting, Jacksonville, FL Jan 2011
Abstract Feasibility of and approaches to fully-online algebra-trig based undergraduate physics laboratory courses were investigated. The goal of the effort was the identification of a set of experiments of appropriate subject content, technical rigor, and experimental accuracy that could be accomplished by students working semi-autonomously in a distance-learning format using inexpensive equipment, at a cost commensurate with that of a typical textbook. 398 US colleges and universities offering undergraduate physics courses were surveyed to determine the extent to which online physics laboratory courses were already employed. A second survey identified approaches used for online labs. Candidate experiments meeting this effort’s content and cost goals were identified, and several experiments were tested in a home environment. Results indicate a fully-online undergraduate physics laboratory course of appropriate content, complexity, and cost is feasible to develop, deploy, and scale.
Introduction Recent data show online learning enrollment is increasing at more than ten-times the rate for post-secondary education overall1. The same sources show the majority of college faculty do not view online education to have legitimacy and value equal to face-to-face instruction, with one-third holding online learning to be of an inferior quality, compared to traditional learning modalities2. A significant body of literature exists regarding the science of face-to-face undergraduate physics teaching and learning3, with gains in standardized tests and large sample sizes providing objective evaluation criteria for competing instructional approaches4,5,6. Similar data are scarce, however, for online physics instruction7,8 with almost no published literature comparing measureable, objective educational outcomes in online and face-to-face physics laboratory courses9,10,11. The result could provide the makings of a “perfect academic storm”, as physics departments feel pressured to provide online physics courses, with insufficient data on best practices and/or the benefits and pitfalls of competing online education strategies, especially with regard to online physics laboratories. Extrapolation of the existing data implies a majority of physics faculty view online physics laboratory courses as inferior to face-to-face lab classes. This is not surprising, when
communicating with instructors via e-mail or online chat. student directed. in a position paper on physics labs. Anecdotal evidence and informal survey responses suggest faculty are concerned that online laboratory learning may equate to the substitution of simulations for traditional laboratory experience or the elimination of a lab experience altogether. for instance. and 5) develop collaborative learning skills12. In Part II of this effort. including experimental design. however. 4) can be accomplished semi-autonomously by college students in a distance format (e. 2) develop experimental and analytic skills. two surveys were completed of US colleges and universities offering undergraduate physics instruction. only). These standards include experiments that are 1) relevant in scope and content to the curriculum of a first-semester algebra-based physics course. 2) of appropriate complexity and depth for a college-level course. A cursory review of commercially-available physics laboratory kits was also performed. A second smaller. Online laboratories that include hands-on. 4) “understand the role of direct observation in physics and to distinguish between inferences based on theory and the outcomes of experiments”. The effort continued by verifying the availability of retail outlets for supplies within the targeted price constraints.g. This effort proceeds in two parts. . and finished by testing some of the experimental procedures in a home environment for accuracy and time to complete. The chosen approach is to identify a set of experiments that meets a target set of standards for cost and appropriateness. and 6) can be accomplished with inexpensive or readily available materials at a total cost to students commensurate with the price of a typical textbook. student implemented experimentation. 2. targeted survey identified methods and approaches employed or planned in online physics laboratory instruction. This effort assesses the feasibility of one method for offering physics laboratory courses online that could meet the AAPT guidelines. The first survey polled 398 US colleges and universities offering undergraduate physics courses to determine the incidence of online physics course and physics laboratory instruction currently available. The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). lists as goals for introductory lab programs to: 1) engage students in the experimental process. from home. and 4. within cost and scalability constraints.perceived online laboratory methods are often incompatible with faculty expectations for undergraduate physics labs.. 3) provide sufficient accuracy for student analysis and student satisfaction. 5) require direct. a set of experiments was identified as meeting the preliminary goals for online physics laboratories. 3) advance conceptual learning. hands-on interaction by students with the experimental process. mitigating against AAPT goals 1. In Part I. could meet all of the AAPT’s stated goals.
9%. A proportionate survey was conducted of 398 of those institutions offering undergraduate introductory courses in physics.8% ± 1.2 Further analysis of the survey data showed no statistically-significant dependence of the results on the status of the institutions as two-year or four-year colleges/universities. At 36 of the 68 institutions offering an introductory undergraduate physics course online. complete discussion and instruction online but perform experiments on-campus (web hybrid approach). as well. Seventy-seven institutions responded.Part I: Surveys According to the US Department of Education. 38 (9. identified through literature searches and social networking14.9%. These data indicate that physics courses have significantly lower incidence of online offerings. The survey results revealed that. a second. Fall 2010) semester(s) for each institution were reviewed to identify the physics courses taught by each institution. The most common approach identified was to provide no online laboratory content at all. of the 398 institutions offering introductory undergraduate physics courses. targeted survey was performed. to the 95% confidence level) offered at least one similar physics course online. This second survey collected responses to eight survey questions from US Degree-granting institutions offering undergraduate physics courses online. or 3. 32 of which offer (or plan to offer) some or all of the associated laboratory curriculum in an online format. or the lab portion of the same course. all corresponding laboratory work is required to be completed on-site at the campus. hybrid. or attend an on-campus week. to the 95% confidence level) offered the corresponding laboratory course. and to determine the modalities by which the courses were offered (self-reported by the institutions as classroom. while slightly fewer than half as many (15. and to ascertain the methods via which lab components are provided in these cases. et al. The combined (Survey I and Survey II) responses resulted in a sample of 68 institutions offering (or planning to offer within the next three years) at least one section of introductory undergraduate physics in an online format.5% ± 2. or online/webbased). there were 4409 post-secondary degreegranting institutions operating during the most recent year reported13. Students must either attend a traditional on-campus laboratory course.1. compared to all other disciplines reported by Allen. with a ratio of two-year to four-year institutions approximating the ratio of two-year to four-year public institutions for the same period. in an online format. Course schedules for the Spring 2010 (and where available.or weekend laboratory intensive to perform multiple lab . In order to increase the sample size of institutions offering physics lab courses online. The Survey II responses provided detailed information on the approaches different institutions offering physics online have taken towards providing the corresponding laboratory course content online.
The third approach identified was direct. this one most closely mirrored the methods and degree of student involvement in the experimental process of the traditional on-campus labs. as their peers taking physics courses in a traditional format. However. students complete identical experiments. hands-on student experimentation performed off-site. or a combination of the two. the second survey identified four additional categories into which these approaches fell. with identical equipment and supervision.exercises in a condensed time (”boot camp” approach). privatelydeveloped simulations. A standard approach to distance learning in the engineering community during the past . with real-time video cameras providing direct feedback and immediate observation of measurements and results. students performed laboratory exercises using a model of the actual physical phenomena. with the measurement data either read by the instructor or the measurement device displays shown in the video for students to read. students operate laboratory equipment directly through Internet-based remote control. or acquired by student purchase of readilyavailable household items. to perform experiments at home. using commercially-available or educational-commons video analysis tools15. with students responsible for all analyses. The first approach identified was video analysis of instructor-supplied videos of experimental procedures. the student was removed from the experimental design and the hands-on aspects of the experimentation. In this approach. Respondents were divided between using publically-available simulations. The other half of online physics students (47% ± 12% to the 95% confidence level) experience a variety of non-traditional approaches towards achieving the goals and learning objectives of the laboratory portion of the curriculum. there is no reason students could not analyze video data they had captured in experiments they designed and performed themselves. In some cases. The second approach identified was the use of virtual labs. In each case. Students purchased or borrowed equipment from the institution. such as those developed by the Physics Education Technology (PhET) Project at UC Boulder17. the videos showed instructors performing the experimental procedure. for these institutions (53% ± 12% of institutions offering introductory physics courses online). Of the off-campus lab approaches. In this case. or “virtual” instrumentation that the students were required to manipulate on a computer screen16.18. Besides traditional (on-site) physics labs. with the prevalence of cell phone and similar inexpensive video recording devices. Commercially-available equipment was either purchased as a “kit” from a specialty supplier. or purchased it from commercial sources. Thus. Other approaches involved videos of projectile and/or other motion. The final approach identified was the use of remote labs.
. only one indicated students were required to purchase lab manuals/instructions.e. Out-ofpocket expenses for incidental materials and fees ranged from $0 to $150. and Dowling Magnets Science Discovery Kits22. As reviewed. Thames & Kosmos. The stock-supplied kits provided by each of these vendors were rejected as .two decades19.. not suited for college-level work). limited depth of scientific material (i. Virtual/Sims On-site Video Analysis Custom Publicly Available 11 Hands-on Custom Readily Kit or CommerAvailable Loan cial kit Matls equip 8 9 1 Remote Other 18 4 6 1 0 Table 1. and/or exercises more geared towards demonstration than experimentation.20. Inc.e.. inappropriate scope (not in scope with a first-semester physics course). as almost all respondents indicated the use of a mix of approaches. inaccuracy of results. a short review was made of commercially-available kits for physics experiments. K12. mischaracterization of scientific phenomena (i. Inc. Quality Science Labs LLC. Hands-On Labs. The first two providers explicitly market as providing physics kits for college-level courses. Estimated costs to students varied significantly for the different approaches. Elenco Electronics. most of the kits included projects with insufficient descriptions of the underlying physical theory. errors of scientific fact). Commercial vendors reviewed included eScience Labs. Inc. Of the 35 respondent institutions offering online physics courses.. the rest indicated instructions/manuals were made available to students at no additional charge. either through oncampus experimentation or through hands-on experimentation at the student’s location. 31 indicated their lab programs required direct student-lead physical experimentation.. Methods by which online laboratory content is presented for 35 responding institutions offering online undergraduate physics courses During the initial literature search phase of this effort. The others provide materials primarily at the middle school or high school level. (maker of LabPaq kits). remote labs are only beginning to enter the mainstream of physics education21. SK Science Kits and Boreal Laboratories. The average price-to-student reported for a materials kit (custom or commercial) was $130. Only four institutions (of 455 total non-duplicative responses collected from both surveys) indicated the use of simulations exclusively in an online physics lab course. Of 25 respondents who identified their sources of written lab instructional materials. Table 1 shows the degree to which each approach is used by the 35 colleges and universities offering online undergraduate physics courses represented in Survey II. Discovery. Note that the totals by category add to more than 35. Inc.
gravity. phase change. stop watches. A single kit would allow students to purchase all needed materials in one selfcontained order without having to search through multiple vendors to make multiple orders. free-fall. ramps. conservation of momentum). Additionally. and projectile motion). and quality control.and two-dimensional motion. so that a kit could be designed to meet the specific needs of an individual institution’s education program. acceleration. and scalability goals of this effort are within the current state-of-the-art. digital scales. creating kits. spring scales. with experimental descriptions/procedures supplied by the individual institutions. additional “filler” equipment costs. clamps. All of the first four vendors listed. measuring tapes/rulers. The availability of more than one supplier willing to customize kits to an institution’s needs would also help keep prices to students lower through competition. simple engines and efficiencies). Of all the commercial kits reviewed. forces and equilibrium. the LabPaq products came the closest to meeting the cost and technical goals of this effort. and shipping. content. The fact that ten post-secondary institutions offering hands-on online introductory physics laboratory courses were identified in the surveys. such as graduated cylinders.not meeting the goals of this current effort for one or more of these reasons. optical lenses and prisms. thermodynamics (ideal gas behavior. fluids . It would allow the institutions to control costs by limiting the experimental set to those of specific applicability to their respective physics programs. and laser pointers. mechanics (Newton’s Laws. pulleys. shows immediately that the cost. torques and rotations. It would remove the burden from the institutions of bulk purchasing individual supplies. one. etc. with average price-to-student of $130 for an equipment kit. the kits did show the relative ease to acquire general lab supplies at reasonable prices. diffraction films. student-grade multi-meters. conservation of energy. The concept of developing a custom kit to be supplied by a commercial vendor. once satisfactory experiments are identified. has several advantages. offer customization services. a kit appropriate for a typical secondsemester undergraduate physics course might be even easier to develop and scale using existing suppliers. thermal transport. however. because of the availability from multiple vendors of inexpensive electrical circuit elements. heat capacities and calorimetry. Part II: Experiments A first-semester introductory physics course usually covers the topics of kinematics (velocity. It would assist students by limiting concerns about missing materials. the single Survey II respondent indicating the use of a commercially-available equipment kit used a customized LabPaq (PK-CS117). student-grade multi-meters. However. Not surprisingly.
far exceeds the level available at most college campuses just 30 years ago. and depending on the individual course. Figure 2 shows a zoom-in window of the sound of the ball hitting the floor. for instance. Coupled with a standard audio input device (microphone). “Time”. An open-source. with an average equipment cost of $15 per experiment.. and density). microphone. volume. Zooming in allows the software user to read the precise time of the event very accurately. force. The sophistication of equipment currently available to the average college-aged online learner. however. viscosity. . Archimedes’ principle. covering a cross-section of topics from this set. Figure 1 shows a screen shot of an Audacity recording of a golf ball being dropped from a known height at the same instant the person holding the golf ball said the word. simple harmonic motion and waves. and collection of free software was used in experiments for this effort as a timing system accurate to one one-thousandth of a second or better. the computer sound card provides students with the capability to time experimental events to within a few thousandths of a second 23. relationships of pressure. with calculation of the acceleration due to gravity repeatedly achieved to within 2% of the accepted value. A subsequent reading of the time for the start of the drop allows a very accurate determination of the difference between the two.e. A selection of ten experiments covering this material. General Public Use sound recording and editing software product called Audacity24 was used to audio-record experiments and determine the time intervals between different experimental events. i. far higher than the sampling rate of high-end introductory physics laboratory data acquisition systems. A standard computer soundcard. the time for the golf ball to fall the known distance. All online learners. have access to a computer with an Internet connection. According to comments expressed in the Part I surveys. The start of each event (the word and the sound of the golf ball hitting the floor) are clearly seen in the recording track shown. the primary objection by faculty to offering undergraduate physics laboratory courses online is the perceived lack of hands-on interaction by students with appropriate lab equipment. A first-semester physics laboratory course typically includes ten experiments.1 kHz.(hydrostatic and Bernoulli’s equations. Trial of this simple approach in a home environment yielded very consistent results. would meet this effort’s goals for appropriate content and cost commensurate with the price of a typical college textbook. and the overwhelming majority of these have sound cards that sample at a standard rate of 44.
A common first-semester physics experiment uses a motion detector to measure the heights of consecutive bounces of a ball.Figure 1. this method consistently produced measurements of ‘g’ within 1% of the accepted value. The sounds of three consecutive bounces of a golf ball dropped from a known height were recorded using the Audacity software. and Audacity audio recording and editing software. this quantity is also related to the ratio of time between consecutive bounces. Data recorded with standard PC microphone. the kinematic equations. Relating this to the initial potential energy and the percent of mechanical energy dissipated in the collision (determined from the COR). the ratio of consecutive bounce heights can be calculated using the ratio of the velocities of the ball before and after it bounces. and inelastic collisions. Recording of the time of free-fall for a ball released from a known height. First and second sounds shown are the release and end of flight. The timing information was also used to calculate the velocity immediately after the first bounce. In the second experiment. the acceleration due to gravity was determined. Zooming in to one sound event permits the time to be read to one ten-thousandth of a second. By Conservation of Energy. The COR was calculated from the ratio of these intervals. By application of simple kinematics (ignoring air resistance). The absolute times of each bounce were used to determine the time interval between the first two bounces and the time interval between the last two bounces. and from this. a measure of the mechanical energy dissipated in the collision of the ball with the floor. These first two experiments investigated the topics of free-fall in constant acceleration. Figure 2. The experiments were completed in times commensurate with standard on-campus physics labs. In trials in a home environment. The ratio of the heights of consecutive bounces is related to the Coefficient of Restitution (COR). A second experiment was completed using the same timing method to investigate the principle of Conservation of Energy. determine g. respectively. The results were . conservation of energy. the acceleration due to gravity25. soundcard. the Audacity software and computer sound card were used to determine the COR.
f. While cell-phone texting has become the bane of undergraduate face-to-face instruction. Data can be exported and copied into other programs. an open source software product made available freely for non-commercial. and the toy’s motion was recorded using a cell phone camera. or graphed and processed within Tracker to . and use the pixel count and a reference length to map this location into a calibrated x-y coordinate system. a. About 90% of all Americans aged 18 to 34 own a cell phone26. educational purposes. a kitchen table was tilted by placing two identical telephone books under the legs on the table’s longer side. and were accomplished entirely with equipment readily available. the explosive growth and fierce competition in the cell phone industry provides great potential benefits to online learners. A low-friction toy hovering on an air cushion27 was given an initial horizontal velocity on the table top.repeatable. b. Figure 3 shows the motion of the toy in a series of frame-by-frame screen shots. Many newer devices also embed digital still and video cameras with resolution of up to 30 frames per second. identified at the start of this effort. Almost all cell phones now include a stopwatch feature with one one-hundredth of a second resolution. Total estimated costs for all equipment required for both experiments (one golf ball and a measuring tape) was under $4. Motion of a frictionless toy given an initial horizontal velocity across a tilted table The video of the toy’s motion was imported into Tracker28. d. with cell phones increasing in the frequency and quality of applications offered. e. The software allows the user to identify the location of an object of interest in each video frame. c. These experiments met or exceeded the goals for online introductory physics experiments. Combining cell phone video recording with readily-available free software for screen capture and frame-by-frame playback provides another method for accurate experimentation in the home environment. Figure 3. In the third home experiment performed for this effort.
while trigonometry and the kinematic equations could be used to predict the total distance traveled and x. Notice the constant horizontal velocity (linear graph of x-vs-t) and constant vertical acceleration (parabolic graph of y-vs-t). Position data for projectile motion. or a very limited number of calibrated weights. would allow the determination of the initial velocity and angle. Note the constant velocity of the object in the horizontal direction.and y. A review of commercial laboratory supply vendors found calibrated weight sets typically costing $50 to $70. with a clearly parabolic graph for the vertical data. An inexpensive caliper would permit the correlation of the accelerations to the objects’ moments of inertia. with a . One of the factors limiting the cost and accuracy of the commercially-available kits was the high prices of calibrated weight sets.determine linear and angular velocities. Starting the toy from the lower left corner of the table. Releasing a ball from rest and allowing it to roll down the table in a straight line from top to bottom would mirror the behavior of an object in free-fall. less-expensive spring scales instead.and y-components of velocity at subsequent positions. a single AA battery was released from rest and allowed to roll down the length of the table under the influence of gravity. accelerations. interpolated using Tracker video analysis software. Most kits used less-accurate. Figure 4. Figure 4 shows screen shots of the resulting video and corresponding graphs of x.locations versus time for the toy. Video analysis can be used in a wide range of introductory physics lab applications. for instance. In a variation on this last approach. and momenta. then compared to the behavior of other rolling objects.
a tandem pulley. several balls. The final list included a measuring tape. a 1. Next Steps With several candidate experiments identified and demonstrated in the home environment. a spool of thread or string. timing devices.single vendor offering a lowest price of $25 for a set of hooked masses.5 ft section of 1 x 6 board. this equipment could be used by online students to perform more than 20 college-level experiments spanning the entire range of topics covered in a first-semester introductory physics course. With the growing availability of digitized consumer products. a list was put together of equipment available from multiple vendors and suited for use in home experimentation for a web-based introductory physics course. With the software and techniques described above. wood blocks and screw-in metal eye hooks.1 grams. This would follow the “Do no harm” . a plastic caliper. a stand and right-angle clamp (two preferred). a graduated cylinder. by having students complete most experiments on campus and a select subset of experiments at home. an edge pulley and table clamp. The learning outcomes could be assessed against the AAPT goals for laboratories. or the general education requirements of the respective states. paper clips. an aluminum calorimeter. two springs. Additional cost savings could be realized by economies of scale and by reducing the number of experiments. communicating with instructors primarily via chat or email to simulate the online learning experience. Students completing the labs should also report the actual time to complete the exercises. a digital scale and calibration mass. Preliminary test populations could be drawn from current face-to-face physics lab students. the accuracy of results achieved. 2 spring scales. a push-pin. and scales. a protractor. however. In addition to the free and low-priced items already described. Digital scales developed for the jewelry business. as directly compared to on-campus labs. fishing weights. a balance stand and three knife-edge meter-stick clamps. with capacity suited for lab applications and resolution of 0. a syringe (without needle) and Luer lock cap. are now available for under twenty dollars29. thermometer measuring -12 °C to 100 °C. tape and scissors. the quality and accuracy of home laboratory experiments are now only limited by the creativity of the physics lab instructor. Objective assessment criteria must be developed to compare the efficacy of online labs. such as video cameras. the next step is the “field-testing” of experiments with first-semester undergraduate physics students. A review of prices offered through a limited number of laboratory equipment suppliers30 resulted in a price estimate for the entire equipment list of about $170. after the manner of Ruby31. software. and gains in conceptual understanding and familiarity with the experimental process. a half-meter stick.
“A Mechanics Baseline Test”. Fall 2003 .PER. 2009”. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Ed. An accurate. http://prst-per. affordable. “Force Concept Inventory”. The Physics Teacher. adjusting. by allowing students to work with instructors in person if needed. Res. and Gregg Swackhamer. The development of an effective online physics laboratory program. 2005”.” The next steps of testing. to assure the availability of a quality educational program prior to its eventual implementation. These proposed next steps would develop a body of objective data to allow the tailoring of the lab procedures and approaches for greatest student benefit. an electronic-only journal devoted entirely to this subject. ”. attitudes. 159-166 (1992) 6 Richard R. I. and will continue to make inroads into the postsecondary physics education community. 30 (3). Rev. “Excellent laboratory programs do not happen by chance but require thought and planning. to include online physics labs. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. 3. and their broad implementation will require the best efforts of the physics community. I. November 2005 2 “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States. Special Topics . The Sloan Consortium. ISBN 978-0-9766714-2-8. As said in the AAPT Policy Statement12. The Physics Teacher. without consideration of educational effectiveness. “Web-Delivered Interactive Lecture Demonstrations: Creating an active science learning environment over the Internet”. Phys. Phys. 30 (3). ST. ISBN 978-1-934505-09-0. Phys.Phys. and learning”. Malcolm Wells. 1 “Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States. “Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses”. January 2010 3 See. Babson Survey Research Group. The alternative is for physics departments to adopt untested online laboratory programs merely to meet increasingly constrained student schedules and demands for greater accessibility.philosophy.. 141-151 (1992) 5 David Hestenes and Malcolm Wells. co-sponsored by the American Physical Society (APS) Forum on Education and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). It is in the best interest of the future physics students and the college and university physics departments to prepare for the eventual use and extension of online learning modalities.aps. Newsletter. and to use tested on-campus lab techniques for the bulk of the lab learning experience. Hake. Am. (PRSTPER). Rev. hands-on student-centered learning approach towards online physics laboratory courses is readily available and well within the current state of the art. Conclusions The incursion of online learning into all subject areas continues to accelerate. for example. APS FEd.org/ 4 David Hestenes. “Correlations between student discussion behavior. however. 010101 (2007) 8 Ronald Thornton. Such data must be available prior to the adoption of experimental curricula into a fully-online physics laboratory course. J. will not happen “by accident”. and re-testing hands-on online laboratory content should be taken now. Achieving these goals is a worthy challenge. (Jan 1998) 7 Gerd Kortemeyer. 66(1).
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