Lab learning goes under the microscope

When delegates to the Canadian Association of Physicists’ annual conference gathered recently to hear a presentation by UBC Prof. Doug Bonn, they didn’t come to hear about his latest techniques in developing high-temperature superconductors. They wanted his insights into a rarely studied field: undergraduate physics lab education.

For the past two years, Bonn, one of the world’s foremost experts in material science and newly appointed head of UBC’s Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, has devoted considerable time and energy to overhauling undergraduate physics lab curricula with an aim to delivering quantifiable results in learning.

Lab experiments can be designed to teach students how to operate equipment, collect and interpret data, perfect technical skills and establish scientific concepts, among other things. But too often, Bonn says, these goals go unexplained and unevaluated.

“When we get students to do these lab exercises, we don’t always tell them why they’re doing them or what they’re expected to learn from them,” says Bonn. “There are so many unspoken goals in Physics Lab that, when articulated, would make you go ‘Good grief! How are they supposed to learn all that?’

“And how do we know they’ve actually learned these skills at the end of the day?”

That question appealed to Bonn’s research instincts so much that he decided to undertake something that has been little studied – scientifically measuring what students are gaining from labs.

Working with UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI), Bonn’s first task was to identify the unspoken learning goals – and assess how realistic these expectations are.

“Using lab exercises as a way to learn scientific concepts, for example, is really hard to do,” says Bonn. “Because there are so many distracters that come part and parcel to the laboratory environment and that could obscure the concept.”

What makes a lab imperfect for learning concepts, however, provides the ideal training ground for some of the core skills of becoming a scientist or a science-minded citizen, according to Bonn.

“One of the key roles the laboratory plays is bridging a theory or an idea to the real world, where there are distractions and complications,” says Bonn. “To that end, lab exercises should be designed to teach what can’t be taught anywhere else: to help students get comfortable with uncertainty, to derive trends from numbers and ultimately, to interpret real world phenomena.

“These are the skills that help aspiring scientists – or engaged citizens, for that matter – decide how to interpret data presented to them, such as those reported in the media,” says Bonn.

Last year, Bonn began developing a “laboratory diagnostic” to see what students are currently learning and retaining from lab sessions with the help of James Day, a CWSEI-funded Science Teaching and Learning Fellow (STLF).
STLFs are termed scholars with expertise in how people learn and their respective scientific disciplines who assist faculty members to adopt proven best practices in teaching and assessment.

Bonn and Day asked a large group of first-year students to write down their thought processes for solving common lab problems and then conducted interviews to further identify common misconceptions. Multiple-choice questions were then designed specifically to test these common roadblocks and given to hundreds of physics students at UBC and the University of Edinburgh.

Bonn found that regardless of the year of study, students at both universities “tripped over” the same key concepts. “Even some of my brightest students didn’t do so well when evaluated this way, and that was quite discouraging,” says Bonn.

The diagnostics are now being used before and after lab courses and results are being analyzed to fine tune the curriculum, including how students are tested after a lab session. New teaching labs, designed with these focused learning goals and team-learning in mind, are also being unveiled this September.

“It’s all about ensuring students are actively thinking, rather than passively absorbing – or in many cases, failing to absorb – the information,” says Bonn, who sees no conflict between teaching and research.

“Contrary to what some believe, I see research on effective teaching techniques as a means of freeing up more time for other research,” says Bonn.

“It is a way to build up a body of knowledge and resources for teaching, both through work here at UBC and through the connections that we make to other colleagues involved in science education. This set of resources makes us more efficient with our time while significantly improving learning.”