When people recall what they enjoyed most about science classes – whether in college, high school or even earlier – chances are they remember hands-on experiments and the excitement of discovering something new for themselves. This element of discovery is important to Thomas Hoffman ’16 and Adam Lark, director of physics laboratories. The two are working together to add more discovery-based elements to introductory physics labs on campus, hoping to improve the learning experience for physics students.
Discovery-based learning has been around since the 1960s, and it is often praised as being more engaging than traditional guided learning. The idea of discovery-based learning is to let students discover scientific principles for themselves through inquiry and experimentation. A teacher may provide them with guidance and the right tools but will not provide the answer itself. Proponents of discovery-based learning say that discovery can help students to understand a problem more fully and to retain the information they have learned better. Within science labs, Hoffman explained that discovery-based elements have “been shown to increase students’ time spent sense-making and generally seem to be more intellectually enjoyable than traditional labs.” Discovery-based labs can provide students with multiple ways to reach a goal, and they tend to be more thought-provoking.
This summer, Hoffman and Lark have worked to revise existing physics labs to include more discovery-based elements. They’ve researched labs at other universities and read scholarly articles in order to develop labs that will help students to learn concepts more effectively. Hoffman is also thinking ahead to aspects of the labs that students might have difficulty with. A physics major himself, he said, “I can better understand where introductory students might have trouble with our revised labs and what questions they might ask.” Hoffman and Lark can then address these areas before they become problematic.
The physics 100 and 200 classes this fall will incorporate new elements from Hoffman and Lark’s research. The department will then use surveys to assess how effective the new elements are. Ultimately, Hoffman and Lark hope to retain more physics majors and to improve learning through labs. Hoffman said he hopes the new discovery-based elements will “induce expert-like thinking in students, and get students excited about the art of scientific experimentation and error analysis.” Ideally, the updated labs will provide students with a better understanding of physics concepts than traditional labs. As with all kinds of discovery-based learning, though, the students will have to find out for themselves.