Fake data labs to support big ideas

I’ve written about my fake data labs before. The gist is that each student in Modern Physics chooses from a list of famous labs and figures out how you could redo them using modern techniques. They’re graded on how they understand the project (a major formal report), how they understand modern computer data acquisition and control (mostly a bunch of LabVIEW or Arduino software), and how well they analyze the fake data I provide for them (in Mathematica, of course).

I like this project, and have done it for over 10 years. I like how it helps me normalize the letters of recommendations that I write. But now I’d like them to do something more. I’d like them to help me bring more focus to the whole course. As I’ve started to brainstorm that standards I’m going to use (see this work-in-progress google doc that’s open to public comment), I’m starting to run into the same problems I always have when crafting standards. Standards really help me keep the big picture in mind, and in doing so, they identify topics that are more tangential than core.

Here are some examples:

• The Michelson-Morley experiment is a really cool exercise in flexing relativity muscles. Understanding how the fringes shift is a lot harder than I originally thought.
• Rutherford scattering is a towering achievement of classical mechanics. It’s a trip to the deep end of trajectories, scattering cross-sections, and curve fitting.
• Blackbody mode counting is a triumph of statistics.
• The distance to galaxies based on red-shift is a great example of how to do relativistic calculations

I could go on, but those are enough to (try to) make my point. I already have students working on these things individually, could I leverage that work to keep me from spending organized class time on these sorts of topics? Could the students tackle just one of these things that have two issues: 1) big ideas/names involved in modern physics, and 2) tangential math or other types of physics muscle flexing. Each student would only do one, but I could do some sort of poster session or something where they have to teach their classmates about it. No one but the original student would really sweat out the details, but they’d all be doing one of them (presumably) well.

Thoughts?

Associate professor of physics at Hamline.
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5 Responses to Fake data labs to support big ideas

1. Joss Ives says:

Hi Andy. This may be a discussion for another post, but I’m always interested in chatting with people about how they implement the big writing assignments in their lab courses (formal lab reports / journal articles).

I think you could take advantage of peer review to allow students to become familiar with an extra one or two topics without having had to do all the foundation laying themselves. For example you could have the students in peer groups of 3 where they have to provide feedback on the papers to the other two members of their group for 2 revisions/drafts of those papers.

• Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

I like the notion of using peer review, especially on the theory section of the paper, which can be written quite early.

2. If you can commit the financial resources to get the posters printed (~$100 / poster) It would be a very good skill for them to learn but it might be too early with sophomores. I don’t see how you are going to save organized class time, you’re just trading who is doing the talking but the time still gets used. If you are not able to spend >$1000 printing posters you could make it a constrained video submission, they get to record a power point, keynote, etc presentation and you grade it like you do a standard. That might be a good way to get more analysis from the labs they do. Perhaps two standards for each lab “I can operate the experimental apparatus”, and “I can present the results of my experiment”. Since they are standards it would make it easier to choose which experiments are worth doing and which are only worth simulating. Grading them would be easy, write down the questions you have as you watch it, the shorter and/or more trivial the list the closer they are to mastery.

• Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

we have a poster printer, but, as you say, it doesn’t really provide the time savings I was looking for.