Physical science laboratories: skills across the curricula

11 September 2007

Physical science laboratories provide a real opportunity to integrate a broad range of skills into a single activity. In taking over the course, I hoped to integrate writing, mathematics, and technology along with the concepts of physical science into the laboratories.

As I have noted to some, the typical physical science laboratory looks something like a recipe. The student is asked to do something or measure something, they fill in the blank in the book for that step, and go on to the next step. Occasionally the lab book includes a "critical thinking" moment or other "special blank" in a paean to whatever the science education rage of the moment might be.

In my design, the labs consist of a weekly paper produced by the student using spreadsheet and word processing software. Production calls on all the skills they have learned in courses such as CA 100 Computer Literacy. Already I am noting that students are confusing line charts with xy scattergraphs. Either students have forgotten the distinction or the later were not covered in any prior course. This did cause me to move the class into the computer laboratory to cover this distinction.

The conclusion should be a brief essay, possibly only a paragraph, on the results of their work. These paragraph is rated using a rubric that considers content, grammar, vocabulary, and cohesion. To date many of the students have struggled with producing a coherent paragraph. The conclusion both pushes their writing skills and provides me with a surprisingly effective tool for gaging their comprehension of what they have done.

A sample student laboratory from an above average student still has a number of problems but provides an idea of what is coming in at this point in the term. The text in blue is part of the original laboratory description, I provide a framework on which the students can "hang" their sections. This is necessary as the students have had so little background in science. For some students this is their first contact with experimental laboratory physical science.

The students in the course do not possess any sort of consistent background. I have students who have completed EN 120b, others that are still in ESL 099. Mathematically I have students who have finished statistics while others are in MS 100. I may have students who are in MS 099. The result is a challengingly broad range of skill sets. The laboratories are due at the next laboratory period - a typed document with tables and charts per week. I accept laboratories as a hard copy or via email.

At a laboratory a week, there is no time in the current structure for drafts and revisions. Some students could benefit from the writing center, and I may recommend that to those who have more fundamental grammar problems. There is some good news in that no student has produced a completely unintelligible conclusion. There are four students, however, who are not turning in laboratories, underneath may be an inability to put these complex laboratories together. I will have to meet these four. The class is presently 31 students, and marking 31 writing papers a week appears to be the functional upper limit on the course from the instructor's point of view.

To date, each lab has been changed in some way by the Thursday 8:00 section. The changes are implemented in the Thursday 11:00 laboratory section, which in turn often makes further modifications. I also alter the laboratories both as a result of field testing and once I see the laboratories. The laboratories will further evolve next term. This process is likely to take a few iterations to settle on a working set of laboratories.

Each laboratory is designed around a fairly simply system, using local materials to the extent that I can. For minimal costs they could conceivably delivered on any island which has a hardware store. To date, only chronographs have proven problematic.

At present the lecture section is fairly traditional, although the complexity of the laboratories means that servicing and supporting the students in their laboratory effort has required lecture section time to address common needs. One of the surprises for me is that our students are almost a tabula rasa in terms of science theories. One student concluded a motion laboratory by talking about how all objects slow down as the starting force "wore off" as the ball rolls farther. He had perfectly captured Aristotle's theory of motion - a theory that really does "make common sense." Yet most students have no idea how to theorize, how to think about systems and make conjectures. Ideas such as mathematical relationships between measures, or that shapes on graphs imply mathematical equations, are all either new or almost incomprehensible.

In talking with a former student who took SC 130 in the 1990s, the student noted that they remembered nothing of the course nor of what they did. I suspect that is true of most students a dozen years after a course. Certainly the memorized but never used content is lost. My hope is that the students learn a process of investigation, a way to look at their world, and some of the concepts of science, that transcends specific content. In the process, however, a good deal of specific content is necessarily lost.