The 2015 Conference on Laboratory Instruction Beyond the First Year of College

Elizabeth George, Wittenberg University

The second Conference on Laboratory Instruction Beyond the First Year of College (“BFY II”) was held on the University of Maryland campus July 22-24, 2015, before the summer 2015 meeting of the AAPT. More than 150 physics laboratory instructors and a dozen commercial laboratory equipment vendors participated in the BFY II conference, which was organized by the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association (ALPhA) [1]. The theme for the conference was "Constructing Great Instructional Lab Experiences." The conference highlighted a variety of creative and exciting efforts in recent years to rethink and revise the content and structure of the Beyond-First-Year (BFY) laboratory curriculum. Small-group workshops provided participants with hands-on experience with new experiments, equipment, and techniques. Invited talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, and poster sessions allowed participants to share their new and improved experiments as well as curricular and pedagogical initiatives.

The goal of the BFY II conference was to give participants the opportunity to:
  • Learn about, and get hands-on experience with, contemporary or improved experiments and techniques, including commercially available equipment appropriate for BFY labs;
  • Gain a broader view of the wide variety of curricula and teaching strategies for the laboratory, and methods for assessing student understanding including assessment of writing;
  • Discuss techniques for programmatic preparation for research and careers, and for integration of undergraduate research with the instructional laboratory curriculum; and
  • Build the community of advanced laboratory instructors and support staff.

The conference offered multiple opportunities for participants to engage with each other in each of these areas.

Contemporary or improved experiments and techniques: The heart of the BFY conference is a wide selection of small-group, hands-on, forty-minute workshops. Fifty-two different workshops were available; each participant was scheduled for a dozen of these workshops. Twenty-two of these workshops were offered by participating vendors, who showcased experiments using their commercially available equipment and software. Thirty workshops were offered by lab developers and instructors from academic institutions. Workshops represented a broad cross section of physics, including interdisciplinary and applied areas, and ranged from low-cost experiments (using an LED as a single photon detector; quantized conductance in wires) to experiments using research-quality instrumentation (atomic force microscopes; femtosecond lasers). There were also workshops on modern techniques in electronics and computer control (FPGAs, Arduinos, etc.) and on lab techniques such as making low-noise electrical measurements and preparing DNA samples for AFM studies.

New experiments and equipment were also described in two contributed poster sessions that generated lively discussion. In addition, breakout discussion sections were scheduled on a variety of topics, many of which dealt with teaching laboratories in specific areas including electronics, quantum optics, biophysics, and materials science. Finally, a group of master demonstrators from PIRA (The Physics Instructional Resource Association) treated us to a demonstration show illustrating principles relevant to advanced courses.

Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment: The 2015 BFY conference closely followed the release of the 2014 AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory [2]. These recommendations stress the vital role of laboratory instruction in developing students’ physics knowledge and experimental skills as well as many transferable skills such as communication, design, and innovation. The conference began with a presentation by two members of the 2014 Undergraduate Laboratory Curriculum Recommendations task force, Joe Kozminski and Ben Zwickl, who talked about the utility of the recommendations for guiding departments in evaluating and updating their lab curricula, and for informing lab assessment. This was followed by a panel of instructors from different types of institutions discussing their institutions’ efforts to implement the recommendations.

Another invited session focused on specific changes that two institutions are implementing to improve their BFY labs. Anne Cox spoke about redesigning the laboratory curriculum at Eckerd College to include new lab options for upper-level courses such as Mechanics and E&M, and a first-year service-learning lab skills course in which students work in teams to engineer a STEM exhibit. Suzanne Amador Kane talked about an initiative at Haverford College to develop “flipped” prelab video presentations and quizzes to help students better prepare for lab.

In a session on teaching written and visual communication in lab courses, Cary Moskovitz, Director of the Writing in the Disciplines program at Duke University, spoke about the need for instructors to consider the rhetorical context of student writing, arguing that typical lab report assignments often help to reinforce student misunderstandings of scientific communication. Kelly Martin from the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology gave an overview of visual communication strategies and principles that can be used by instructors to help students create better scientific presentations.

The contributed poster sessions also featured new pedagogical approaches such as structuring peer review of writing, methods of teaching troubleshooting, and flipping (and scrambling) the electronics course. Several of the breakout sessions also dealt with pedagogical issues, including teaching uncertainty and statistical analysis and developing student experimental skills.

Preparation for research and careers:  In a plenary session on Innovation, Mentoring, and Career Paths, Duncan Carlsmith spoke about Garage Physics at the University of Wisconsin, an open lab/maker space that provides a model for recruiting and engaging physics majors with other students in innovation and entrepreneurship. Crystal Bailey of the APS spoke on the importance of building opportunities for Physics Innovation and Entrepreneurship education into the curriculum, and argued that the laboratory is a natural place to include such opportunities. Chandra Turpen of the University of Maryland talked about lab instruction as a form of mentoring and the importance of structuring interactions in the laboratory to help students collaborate successfully.

Building the community: An important feature of the conference is that lunches and dinners are provided to participants onsite to allow uninterrupted opportunities for discussion and networking. The final plenary session provided time to share information about other programs and initiatives related to advanced laboratory instruction (check out the ALPhA website,, for more information on these other programs and initiatives).

Outcomes: For the first time, a peer-reviewed proceedings was compiled to serve as the written record of the scholarly work presented at the BFY conference; 27 accepted manuscripts on a variety of topics, ranging from specific experiments to assessment strategies, are available at Additional information from this conference as well as the 2009 and 2012 conferences on advanced laboratory instruction (including workshop descriptions, contributed posters, abstracts, and breakout session notes) may be found in the AAPT Advanced Labs section of the ComPADRE Digital Library,

Responses to a post-conference survey showed that participants find the BFY conference to be unique with its multiple emphases on “community, pedagogy, technical ideas, and thinking deeply about the goals of labs and how we assess.” Almost 80% of participants said that they were nearly certain to incorporate information learned at the conference into their own lab courses. Planning for the next conference in the BFY series (location and date to be determined) will begin this summer.

We are grateful for the support of the National Science Foundation (Grant No. DUE-1122993), the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the APS Forum on Education, as well as to the Physics Frontier Center at the Joint Quantum Institute and the University of Maryland Physics Department, who served as hosts. Many commercial equipment vendors also lent their support to the conference, including Active Spectrum, Cold Quanta, Quantum Design, PASCO Scientific, Spectrum Techniques, TeachSpin, MathWorks, Klinger Educational Products, Keithley Instruments, Star Cryoelectronics, Keysight Technologies, and Edmund Optics.

[1] ALPhA is an association of over 250 individual members dedicated to advanced experimental physics instruction:
[2] AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory,

Elizabeth George is a Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Wittenberg University. Her primary research focus is in nuclear beta decay and the weak interaction. She was the chair of the 2015 Conference on Laboratory Instruction Beyond the First Year of College.

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.