John Vilk, ’11

Major: Computer Science

Project Title: Physics Lab Toolbox: Collisions Lab IQP
The goal of this IQP was to take an existing introductory physics laboratory experiment and make it more enjoyable while maintaining (or increasing) its educational value. In particular, we chose to improve the experiment that explored collisions. After observing a class perform the original experiment and determining potential areas of improvement, we significantly reengineered the instructions of the lab to minimize frequent sources of error. We administered our updated lab on one half of a different class and the old lab on the other half. From data gathered from a survey, we were able to determine that our redesigned lab increased the educational value of the lab and its “enjoyability.” Furthermore, the lessons that we learned through improving this experiment could be applied to improving other experiments.

Why I chose this project:
Since most students at WPI end up taking this introductory physics course, this particular project had the potential to have a huge impact on the education of most WPI students. Also, since we had taken this course as freshmen, we had “insider knowledge” concerning why some laboratory experiments were tedious and not as engaging or fun as they could be.

What I learned from my IQP:
Through this IQP, I learned how difficult it is to teach! Every student has a unique way of thinking and may have different knowledge gaps from his/her peers. We recognized this while we were observing a class perform the original experiment and were able to address it by providing support materials in our revised lab instructions that explained the physics behind various stages of the experiment. Also, while writing the instructions, we had to be careful with our explanations, since an ambiguous statement could lead students to do or think the wrong thing.

I also learned that it is extremely difficult to create an effective survey that does not significantly bias results. Every question in the survey needs to be worded in a way that does not “push” the survey taker to answer one way or another. In addition, the context in which the survey is taken can heavily influence results. For example, students scrambling to leave the lab room may not spend enough time considering the questions in the survey before filling in answers. Thankfully, we were able to collaborate with Professor Zastavker from Olin College to ensure our survey methodology was sound.

How I have benefitted from my IQP as a person and a student:
I greatly improved my written communication skills due to the laborious process of ensuring that our revised experiment had clear and concise instructions. Had the instructions been too long, students would have skimmed them. However, had they been too short, they might not have provided enough explanation for students to understand what they needed to do!

As a scientist, I learned the importance of ensuring that laboratory instruments are performing as intended. We were able to determine a significant source of error caused by the manner in which the existing experiments were setting up and using laboratory equipment and raised our concerns directly to the Physics department head. We also found a defect in how the laboratory software configured the sample rate of lab instruments and informed the manufacturer of this problem.

Both of these problems were causing students immense grief (since they would get unexplainable results during experiments) which caused us to add a step to our revised experiment where students verified that their equipment was working properly. As far as we could tell, this type of diagnostic step was never considered before our IQP.

What I accomplished:
Our group found an effective strategy for writing laboratory instructions that improved the “enjoyability” of laboratory experiments. By providing optional extra content designed to provide additional support to struggling students, students were able to complete the experiment faster, which enabled us to add more content to the experiment. Furthermore, students appeared to require less individualized help from the TAs in the room during the experiment.

Also, through the addition of our diagnostic step, we essentially crowdsourced the task of finding defective lab instruments; by the end of the first lab period, students had found a handful of lab instruments that consistently reported erratic measurements.

Additional comments on the WPI project system in general:
The WPI project system forces students to find intelligent solutions to real problems. This sort of problem solving is crucial to succeeding in postgraduation jobs, and in life in general.

The IQP in particular forces students to solve a problem in an area that they may not be familiar with. In order to succeed, students must independently study topics relevant to the problem to find an effective solution. In the case of my IQP, we had to study how existing students confronted laboratory experiments to find areas of improvement, as well as human psychology to design our survey.

By the time WPI students graduate, they have at least two projects (the IQP and MQP) they can show off to potential employers (or graduate schools) that demonstrate their problem-solving abilities. And, from what I have seen, they love to hear about them.

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