Topical conference on laboratory instruction BEYOND THE FIRST YEAR of College

Gabriel Spalding

The support of the FEd (along with that of ALPhA, the NSF, APS, AAPT, PIRA, ComPADRE, the Physics Departments of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University and the participating vendors) will be very important to the success of this conference. That is, your support is needed!

The Conference on Laboratory Instruction Beyond the First Year (BFY) will be held at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, Wednesday, July 25 - Friday, July 27, 2012. This will be an extremely unusual opportunity for hands-on exposure to an extremely broad smörgåsbord of contemporary instructional labs appropriate to Modern Physics Labs, Electronics, Optics, Advanced Labs, as well as key instructional labs in Statistical Physics, Condensed Matter and Materials Physics, Quantum Mechanics, etc. At the same time, the conference will serve as an opportunity to discuss a range of curricular models that allow for enhancement of the undergraduate physics major.

A survey regarding the status of laboratory instruction beyond the first-year courses has been conducted by ALPhA (the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association); preliminary results indicate that, even at a number of the larger institutions, physics majors often require only two semesters of laboratory instruction beyond the first year, which places an extraordinary burden upon those required courses. Curricular revision is possible, with some institutions adding just a few key labs sprinkled throughout the core courses of the major, while other institutions seek to “co-value” experiment with the formal, non-laboratory part of the physics course sequence. The time is ripe for cross-institutional dialog on such “big picture” issues.

Arguably, one of the reasons why physics is a “good” undergraduate major is that its traditional, formal coursework is a "spiral curriculum," that is, one that revisits, reinforces, and refines key concepts. On the other hand the cohesion of laboratory curricula over the four-year experience of a typical major requires much more intentional planning. Some programs have given these issues serious consideration. More are taking up the issue. Again, the time is ripe for cross-institutional dialog.

Often, though, it is when we focus the conversation at the level of discussing particular courses or even particular experiments that we have some of our most productive exchanges about modernizing our curricular content and our pedagogy. So, this “BFY” conference will have breakout sessions and a great many hands-on workshops allowing this sort of focused interaction.

Among the sub-topics covered, we will highlight those aimed at demonstrating quantum mechanics in the undergraduate curriculum (e.g., demonstrating the existence of photons, quantum correlations and single-photon interference, indistinguishability and the quantum eraser, entanglement and statistical tests of Bell's inequalities). This summer ALPhA managed the advertising and registration for a faculty development workshop focused on these particular instructional labs (at Dickinson College, June 17-18, 2010). It is notable that this sold out quickly, demonstrating a high level of interest among instructors. While instructor and student interest in such topics can be quite high, these can nevertheless pose pedagogical challenges. Yet a number of groups have begun work to re-vamp the four-year undergraduate curriculum so that students will have already had hands-on experience with the relevant equipment, techniques, and key conceptual aspects by the time they encounter the most sophisticated of these labs (thereby developing some interesting case studies of “spiral” curricula for laboratory instruction).

One barrier to widespread adoption of this class of instructional labs has to do with the current cost of the particular type of single-photon detectors required; a histogram of ALPhA survey data regarding financial support of advanced laboratory instruction looks like a stretched exponential, which demonstrates that minimal ongoing investment is a common problem. Currently, it costs about $10k for the 4-detectors module purchased for these instructional labs by early adopters. So, ALPhA has been working with key vendors in the hopes that they might be convinced to make something more affordable available to the educational market. The positive response we have received means that these efforts to create a special product category with relaxed specifications, explicitly aimed at the educational market, are expected to have very significant impact by the time of the 2012 BFY conference, underscoring the importance of including (many) vendors in our discussions, as active participants in the conference, and in our ongoing efforts toward enhancing opportunities for laboratory instruction.

At the 2009 Topical Conference on Advanced Labs, twelve vendors brought commercially produced instructional experiments, greatly extending the number of available workshops to a total of 54 hands-on workshops on advanced lab experiments or advances in data acquisition and data handling. For the 2012 BFY lab conference, we want to hear from you about what experiments you would like to have this sort of hands-on experience with: so, instead of vendors bringing products, as at a traditional trade show, we will work with both you and them to set up appropriate instructional experiments that make use of their products. We also seek faculty and staff participants who might be able to transport their own new or improved instructional experiment, to share on site. Broadly, the conference goals were that attendees should come away with:
  • Knowledge of commercially available equipment appropriate for BFY labs
  • A knowledge of, and hands-on experience with, contemporary or improved experiments and techniques
  • A broader view of teaching strategies and pedagogy for the laboratory
  • Methods for assessing student understanding in laboratory instruction, including, in particular, assessment of writing
  • An understanding of the wide variety of curricula used for laboratory instruction
  • Techniques for programmatic preparation for undergraduate research and for integration of undergraduate research with the instructional laboratory curriculum

In preparation for this major educational conference, there are many initiatives to work on. This summer we initiated the ALPhA Immersion Program, where instructors spend three full days, with expert colleagues on hand, learning the details of a single, key instructional physics experiment well enough to incorporate it into their teaching with confidence. All "sold out" and generated waiting lists (eleven different options for focused, multi-day training, with multiple offerings of some), demonstrating a high level of interest among instructors. The outcomes of these initial offerings will be shared at the BFY Conference, and we continue to seek your suggestions for future Immersion Program offerings. ALPhA is also in the early stages of constructing a travelling mentor program aimed at faculty/staff development relevant to advanced laboratory instruction. In addition, ALPhA has gathered data by launching its national survey regarding physics laboratory instruction beyond the first year of college, and as this data is analyzed the need to follow up will undoubtedly become clear. Through educational partnerships with the APS Forum on Education, the AAPT, PIRA, ComPADRE, the many vendors interested in laboratory instruction, the funding agencies and you, we have an opportunity to be a force for good.

Gabe Spalding of Illinois Wesleyan University, is President of the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association and Vice-Chair of the national AAPT Committee on Laboatories.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.