An Overview of the AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum

Joseph F. Kozminski, Lewis University

At the 2013 AAPT Summer Meeting, The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Laboratories established the Laboratory Goals Subcommittee to review the state of the laboratory curriculum and physics education research on student learning and skill development in the physics laboratory. The subcommittee’s charge was to make evidence-based recommendations for the physics laboratory curriculum at the introductory and advanced (i.e. beyond the first year) levels. The subcommittee was comprised of members and friends of the AAPT Committee on Laboratories from a diverse range of institutions: public and private; small, mid-sized, and large institutions; and two-year colleges, primarily undergraduate colleges, and highly research active universities.  After more than a year of work, including numerous revisions and public vetting at several forums at national AAPT meetings, this subcommittee produced the AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum [1], which was officially endorsed by the AAPT in November 2014.

These recommendations define a minimum set of skills and competencies that students should develop and basic types of experiences students should have at the introductory and advanced levels. The recommendations are general enough that they can be implemented at any institution and within the framework of various physics curricula. The recommendations do not define a particular laboratory curriculum, specific labs that must be run, or specific equipment and instrumentation that a physics program must have.  Specific implementation decisions are made locally by each department. Institutions may implement them in stand-alone laboratories, theoretical or computational courses with an integrated laboratory component, or a combination of these.

The recommendations provide scaffolding for skill development from the introductory through the advanced laboratory curriculum.  They emphasize the importance of hands-on laboratory experiences and focus on scientific abilities and transferrable 21st century competencies that will prepare students for graduate school, innovation and entrepreneurship, and jobs in industry, technology, teaching, and many other employment sectors. This focus on scientific abilities aligns well with the Next Generation Science Standards [2] and new Advanced Placement Physics standards [3]. While the full scope of the Recommendations document is intended for students in the Physics major, many of the learning outcomes at the introductory level are intended to be implemented in both majors’ and non-majors’ laboratory courses.

The skills, competencies, and experiences laid out in the Recommendations are grouped into six focus areas: Constructing Knowledge, Modeling, Designing Experiments, Developing Technical and Practical Skills, Analyzing and Visualizing Data, and Communicating Physics.  The ultimate goal of these recommendations is to provide a framework though which students are able to develop the habits and practices of professional physicists, to think like physicists, and to independently construct knowledge based on personal observation and experimentation.

The subcommittee placed the ability to construct knowledge by “collect[ing], analyz[ing], and interpret[ing] real data from personal observations of the physical world to develop a physical worldview” [1] at the center of the framework. The remaining five focus areas expand on that broad goal:
  • By modeling, students will be able to “develop abstract representations of real systems studied in the laboratory, understand their limitations and uncertainties, and make predictions using models.” [1]
  • By designing experiments, students will “develop, engineer, and troubleshoot experiments to test models and hypothesis within specific constraints such as cost, time, safety, and available equipment.” [1]
  • By developing technical and practical laboratory skills, students will “become proficient using common test equipment in a range of standard laboratory measurements while being cognizant of device limitations.” [1]
  • By analysing and visualizing data, students will be able to “analyze and display data using statistical methods and critically interpret the validity and limitations of these data and their uncertainties.” [1]
  • By communicating physics, students will be able to “present results and ideas with reasoned arguments supported by experimental evidence and utilizing appropriate and authentic written and verbal forms.” [1]

The Recommendations are available through the AAPT website [1]. To further disseminate the document, the Committee on Laboratories has been sponsoring one session per national AAPT meeting highlighting one focus area per meeting.  The Recommendations were also a major theme at the 2015 Conference on Laboratory Instruction beyond the First Year [4] and at the Physics Education Research Conference 2015 [5].

The Recommendations will be useful for Physics Departments and Physics faculty looking to review and revise their laboratory curricula and to educate their administrators on the importance of a robust, hands-on laboratory experience. It will also be useful for external program reviewers assessing at the laboratory component of the Physics curriculum. The document is also intended to inform the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force (UCTF) and the American Physical Society (APS) – AAPT Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs (J-TUPP).  Finally, these recommendations can provide a starting point for numerous potential physics education research projects, including development of curricular materials and assessments and provide a common ground for collaboration between laboratory developers and instructors and the physics education research community.

While the implementation of these recommendations will vary based on the local resources available, successful implementation will provide a richer laboratory experience for physics majors and better prepare physics majors for their future endeavours.

The members Laboratory Goals Subcommittee were Joseph Kozminski, Lewis University (Chair); Nancy Beverley, Mercy College; Duane Deardorff, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Richard Dietz, University of Northern Colorado; Melissa Eblen-Zayas, Carleton College; Robert Hobbs, Bellevue College; Heather Lewandowski, University of Colorado Boulder; Steve Lindaas, Minnesota State University Moorhead; Ann Reagan, IEC Services; Randy Tagg, University of Colorado Denver; Jeremiah Williams, Wittenberg University; and Benjamin Zwickl, Rochester Institute of Technology.

[1] American Association of Physics Teachers, AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum (2014)
[2] NGSS Lead States, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States, (National Academies Press, Washington D.C., 2012).
[3] CollegeBoard, “AP Physics 1: Algebra Based and AP Physics 2: Algebra Based Curriculum Framework 2014–2015” (2012),
[4] 2015 Conference on Laboratory Instruction Beyond the First Year,
[5] Physics Education Research Conference 2015,

Joseph Kozminski is a Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL.  He was the Chair of the Laboratory Goals Subcommittee, which produced the AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum, is an outgoing member of the AAPT Committee on Laboratories, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the AAPT Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force.

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.