A Course to Prepare Physics Students for the Research Laboratory

David G. Haase, Hans Hallen, and David P. Kendellen

As at many other campuses, at North Carolina State University we encourage physics majors to pursue undergraduate research. It is common for even our sophomores to ask faculty about opportunities to work in their research groups. Although this is a positive outcome, it has forced our faculty to rethink how courses prepare students to work in a lab.

At NC State the physics majors take labs coupled to the three-semester calculus-based introductory course. The students work with Vernier/Pasco type laboratory equipment and there is some emphasis on "figuring it out for yourself." The labs focus on verifying the physics subject matter: mechanics, E&M, and modern physics. Unfortunately, our majors may not take another lab course until the Advanced Laboratory in the senior year. This one-semester course for second semester sophomores includes instrumentation, electronics and data acquisition activities and two extended experimental projects.

Our faculty observed that the undergraduate students were not prepared to work in a research lab environment. Faculty or graduate students had to spend significant time acquainting the undergraduates about basic lab skills. In response, we surveyed the faculty as to what skills or knowledge undergraduates should possess prior to entering their labs. The long list we received included skills with electronic devices and measurements, safety training and basic lab techniques, skills in vacuum, temperature and optics, additional practice in measurement and data analysis, familiarity with LabVIEW, and many more topics. Our favorite response was that an undergraduate should learn "How to know what to do when you do not know what to do."

Obviously we could not fulfill all of these objectives in a one-semester course. Instead we tried the following.

Three semesters ago we started an Instrumentation and Data Analysis for Physics lab course that meets two times/week, each for two hours. Although most of labs are about electronics, the emphasis is on learning basic laboratory instrumentation and troubleshooting skills. Learning to use the laboratory notebook as a learning tool and a scientific record is strongly emphasized. During the class meetings, the students complete investigations on basic electronic measurements, passive AC circuits, diode circuits, operational amplifiers, a brief introduction to LabVIEW, 555 timer circuits, digital logic gates, noise, and a concluding lab investigation.

There are several substantial out-of-class exercises that are coupled to laboratory skills. There is a formal lab safety unit that makes use of the university's web based safety information. The students are introduced to basic shop practices and must produce simple drawings suitable for that first visit to talk with the shop foreman. There is a unit on Communication in Science, which makes use of materials from a university resource (http://www.ncsu.edu/project/posters/NewSite/), and requires students to write critiques of formal seminars and research posters. In two units on Data Analysis the students review systematic and statistical errors and prepare analyses of experimental data from the research literature.

There is no textbook. The faculty wrote the laboratory exercises.  Like any lab person, the students often refer to Internet sources for background, instruction manuals, and specifications on equipment or circuits.

We have found electronics and instrumentation to be an effective vehicle to teach students experimental skills and habits. There are many situations to troubleshoot and few safety issues. Because electronic components are cheap we can afford to let the students make mistakes and to explore variations on circuits. Of course, electronics has direct application to a variety of physics research environments.

The students' performances are assessed on the basis of readings of laboratory notebooks, homework assignments and reports, and mid-term and final exams. Both exams included a lab practical component, such as designing and building a simple circuit to meet a specification.

The students were surveyed at the conclusion of each semester and we have received anecdotal feedback as well. They seem to have been generally pleased with the course and challenged by it. Almost all thought there was no need for a text. They felt they had learned trouble-shooting skills and how to use a laboratory notebook. They also said they had a better idea of what an experimental physicist does. They reported working about 2 hours/week outside of class and considered the course moderately difficult. They are telling other students that the course was worthwhile. We have not yet obtained significant data on the course's impact on student performance in the research laboratories or in the Advanced Laboratory course.

The Instrumentation and Data Analysis for Physics course is now a graduation requirement for our Physics BS degree. The senior-level Advanced Laboratory will be restructured to include more projects. We now plan to provide the course for 60 majors/year and are considering how to best train graduate students to serve as Teaching Assistants.

We gratefully acknowledge a NCSU Preparing for the Professoriate Award to David P. Kendellen.

The authors, David G. Haase, Hans Hallen, and David P. Kendellen, can be contacted at Department of Physics, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8202. Address for communication: david_haase@ncsu.edu

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.