Labs are Necessary, and We Need to Invest in Them

By Marcos D. Caballero, Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Heather J. Lewandowski, and MacKenzie R. Stetzer

Theoretical models are often useful in explaining or predicting natural phenomena, but at its core, physics is an experimental science. For example, recent experimental work conducted by the LIGO team validated Einstein’s century-old prediction of gravitational waves, providing the most recent large-scale confirmation of the theory of general relativity. Furthermore, this experimental work has opened up the field of gravitational astronomy, allowing us to make observations at previously inaccessible length and energy scales. This, in turn, will help us to develop theories and conduct new experiments to explain the origins of our universe.

For physics students, laboratory work is an authentic way to develop an understanding of the experimental nature of physics. Experimentation provides opportunities to engage in the central practices of physics: designing and conducting experiments, analyzing and interpreting data, revising and troubleshooting models and apparatus, and communicating results to others. An education in physics where experimental work is absent is difficult to imagine. However, despite an ambitious national call to facilitate access to undergraduate research experiences for all undergraduate physics students, comparatively few are able to participate.

Many students face barriers to becoming involved in undergraduate research; such barriers may include work and family obligations, geographical constraints, or mismatches between students’ preparation and programmatic selection criteria. In addition, introductory physics students and students majoring in fields other than physics are not typically recruited to participate in undergraduate physics research. In light of these constraints, laboratory courses are critical to engage all physics students with the central practices of physics.

Physics students in laboratory
H. J. Lewandowski

Laboratory courses that foster collaboration and deep understanding of experimental physics need more support.

At all levels, laboratory courses can be great learning environments. They have low student-to-teacher ratios; they actively engage students with collaborative hands-on work; and they have the potential to support student-defined investigations. In introductory laboratory courses, students are exposed to the process and nature of scientific work, how evidence for theories and hypotheses can be collected, how arguments can be constructed through modeling and analysis, and how their arguments can be presented to others. As students move through the undergraduate physics curriculum, they encounter advanced laboratory courses, where we believe our majors should learn to be physicists. In addition to learning to use specific techniques and equipment, advanced laboratory courses often aim to develop students’ troubleshooting, modeling, computation, and scientific communication skills as well as their ability to learn independently. Advanced laboratory courses play a crucial role in preparing our majors to succeed in graduate study and non-academic work alike.

From our perspective, laboratory courses are a core component of undergraduate physics education. At the same time, there is a vigorous national discussion about the state of laboratory instruction. A Physics Today article from 2017 [1] argued that "physics laboratory instruction in the U.S. is in disarray," citing aging equipment, stagnant experiments, a lack of financial resources and professional incentives to support comprehensive laboratory upgrades, and the complete disappearance of upper-division laboratories at many institutions.

In order to fulfill the educational potential of laboratory courses, we must address concerns about the quality and cost of apparatus, who is included and supported in laboratory instruction (and in what ways), and the apparent discrepancies between experimental physics learning goals and the ways in which laboratory courses are often designed and implemented. Organizations such as the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association (ALPhA) are working hard to improve the state of such courses by providing a variety of resources for laboratory instructors: a laboratory-oriented conference, targeted professional development opportunities, and access to equipment.

At the introductory level, instructors often argue that a primary goal of these laboratory courses is strengthening student understanding of the physics concepts covered in the lecture component of the course. Research conducted at three institutions by Holmes, Wieman, and collaborators [2], however, did not see a statistically significant impact of laboratory instruction on student performance on exam questions related to physics concepts covered during lecture. Moreover, related research by Wilcox and Lewandowski has shown that laboratory courses focused primarily on the development of physics concepts lead to students shifting away from expert-like beliefs about the nature of experimental physics (as measured by the Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey for Experimental Physics, or E-CLASS) [3]. Thus, these findings suggest that many existing introductory laboratory sequences designed to reinforce physics concepts are not effective in achieving that goal. However, researchers and research-based curriculum developers are finding that laboratory instruction can be very effective in attending to learning goals associated with the practices of experimental physics [4].

At all levels, the goals for laboratory instruction must be clearly defined and aligned with the opportunities for learning in such an environment. Indeed, in 2014 a subcommittee of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Laboratories prepared the AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum after examining the current state of undergraduate laboratory instruction and reflecting on the skills and practices that are integral to experimental physics [5]. There, the authors identified and articulated learning outcomes for the undergraduate laboratory curriculum in six broad areas: constructing knowledge, modeling, designing experiments, developing technical and practical laboratory skills, analyzing and visualizing data, and communicating physics. None of the outcomes target student conceptual understanding of physics content. Rather, the recommendations focus on the development of skills and competencies needed for successfully engaging in experimental physics.

Despite the tremendous value of lab courses, some physics departments have been under pressure to justify their expense, especially given equipment costs and small class sizes. Sometimes this culminates in a call to replace laboratory courses with computer-based simulations or lecture demonstrations, or even to eliminate them completely. Although lab costs are different from those associated with other courses, and equipment costs are likely higher, the type of learning that occurs in labs is unique and cannot be replicated in other learning environments. Therefore, we argue that it is unproductive to debate whether labs are "worth the expense." Instead, we must continue working together to improve laboratory courses within existing budgetary constraints.

We imagine a promising future for physics labs. In this future, students collaborate equitably with each other and their instructors to design and conduct experiments. All lab activities would align with clearly articulated learning goals and research-based assessments — and all of this takes place in an accessible, inclusive learning environment.

Realizing this vision will require continued investment of resources from funding agencies, professional societies, colleges and universities, educators, and education researchers. Four major areas of investment are:

  1. Collaborations between researchers and instructors. Our vision for the future is inspired by existing successful teaching approaches. Partnerships between education researchers and lab instructors are an excellent way to learn and communicate which teaching practices work well for particular student populations and learning goals (e.g., see Ref. [6]). It is especially important to identify and study effective labs at two-year colleges and non-selective four-year colleges because these contexts are underrepresented in the physics education literature.
  2. Research-based assessments. The physics education research community has a long track record of creating effective tools for assessing understanding of physics concepts, beliefs about the nature of physics, and other aspects of learning. However, few assessment instruments are tailored to the skills-oriented learning outcomes of undergraduate labs. Moreover, a need exists for tools that allow assessment of the process of science. The dearth of appropriate instruments makes it difficult for researchers or instructors to know which skills-based learning outcomes (e.g., experimental design, data analysis and visualization, and troubleshooting) are being met and which need to be better supported. Future development of skills- or process-based assessment instruments will facilitate the design, evaluation, and improvement of effective labs.
  3. Accessible and inclusive learning environments. Labs use specialized equipment and software, and they often involve frequent peer-peer or student-instructor interactions. Therefore, labs may give rise to a unique combination of stereotypes, discriminatory behaviors, and mobility or sensory barriers that unfairly prevent full participation for some learners. Improved accessibility and inclusivity can be supported by research and development of labs that minimize barriers to students and educators from marginalized groups (e.g., people of color, people with disabilities, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, or Two Spirit [LGBTIQ2S], women, and people from the intersections of these groups).
  4. Professional development opportunities. Since 2010, ALPhA has developed and expanded a Laboratory Immersions program to support the dissemination of creative upper-division lab activities and enhance the confidence of lab instructors. More recently, the AAPT New Faculty Workshop has included a unit focused on introductory labs. Lab instructors and teaching assistants will benefit from further professional development opportunities focused on research-based pedagogies designed to develop students’ lab skills while fostering accessible and inclusive environments.

Currently, physics laboratory courses are receiving attention from professional organizations and a growing number of education researchers as the physics community works toward more fully understanding and articulating the role of laboratory courses in the undergraduate physics curriculum. Looking to the future, we are excited by the prospect of synergistic efforts that share a common commitment to investing in and improving laboratory instruction for all students.

Marcos D. Caballero is Assistant Professor of Physics at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer is a Postdoctoral Researcher and Heather J. Lewandowski is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. MacKenzie R. Stetzer is Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine.

1. Feder T. Physics Today. 2017. 70, 4, 26.

2. Holmes N. and Wieman C. Physics Today. 2018. 71, 1, 38.

3. Wilcox B. and Lewandowski H. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 2017. 13, 010108.

4. Karelina A. and Etkina E. Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 2007. 3, 020106.

5. AAPT Committee on Laboratories, AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum (American Association of Physics Teachers. 2015.

6. Dounas-Frazer D., Stanley J., and Lewandowski H. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 2017. 13. 020136.


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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

May 2018 (Volume 27, Number 5)

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Articles in this Issue
High Selectivity, Inclusive Scope, and Open Access for All
Plenty of Plenaries: From Feynman to LIGO
Hubble Trouble: A Crisis in Cosmology?
Programming a Quantum Computer
Making Room in Physics for Everyone
The Road to a Goldwater Scholarship
APS Joins the March for Science
Profiles in Versatility
This Month in Physics History
Education and Diversity Update
Update from the Office of Government Affairs
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