No official lab

I want to ask your help to brainstorm this concept: Could I teach a non-science-major course that meets the natural science general education requirement at my school without offering an official lab time?

Context: currently the easiest way to apply to teach a course that meets that requirement is to pick just about any science-y topic you want and make sure there’s at least two formal lab hours per week. In my department we regularly offer “physics for poets” (yes, that’s actually the official name – not my idea), “physics of sound and music” (which I’m teaching this term), and “energy, the environment, and the economy.” The reason I’m even considering this shift away from formal lab times is to see if the savings in teaching load for the department wouldn’t sacrifice too much for the students’ learning. The learning objectives for these classes are about how science, as a discipline, approaches things. We’re supposed to note that science as a discipline has tools, give students a chance to use those tools, and to discuss how those tools might be different from other disciplines.

This term I’m letting the students plan the labs. Yesterday in class they voted on a lab dedicated to the Doppler effect over a lab on beats (the two main topics of the last week). They wanted to measure the effect and to try to learn a little more about it. The plan was basically to record some sound of a moving source, along with a recording of the same source when it wasn’t moving, and then analyze that data to determine the speed of the source. Lab today went, well, oddly, but overall I would say it was a success. My big question is: Could they have done that on their own and still learned as much about it?

What I’m proposing for this brainstorming session is that I wouldn’t have the formal lab times. I would, however, still assign the projects on a weekly basis. “Do something to measure the doppler effect” or “measure the speed of sound somehow.” The labs I’m doing this term seem to be right up that alley anyways.


  1. Flexible time for students
  2. Savings of teaching load
  3. Students need to design their own experiments
  4. In physics, especially compared to, say, chemistry, safety is not that big of an issue.


  1. The students aren’t shown good techniques
  2. They won’t know if their data is any good
  3. There will be quite a variation of their equipment
  4. Other departments will feel pressure to do the same

So, what are your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • My school does this and it works great. Here’s what we’ve learned . . .
  • This is a big mistake, here’s why . . .
  • Your lab notes talk about all the cool conversations that you overhear (and can join). Won’t you miss that?
  • I think having the students really do science is a great idea.
  • Students can’t be trusted to do the right thing. You need to give them a cookbook.

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to No official lab

  1. Melissa says:

    Very interesting question. Labs have been on my mind a lot lately since I’m on the AAPT subcommittee looking to update guidelines for labs. Particularly with on-line education growing, there are more and more examples of courses where the lab is done by individuals away from a traditional lab setting so in that regards I don’t think this is out of the question. Based on my own experience, as someone who likes to encourage students to ask their own questions and design their own experiments even at the intro level, I feel that there is a fair amount of conversation and back and forth that happens during lab time in order to ensure that the experiment the students design is a “good” one that supports the learning outcomes you have. Otherwise the experimentation can be quite sloppy and undermine the scientific habits of mind that we try to instill in laboratory work. Figuring out how to provide appropriate scaffolding so things don’t completely go off the rails or so that the quality of the investigation doesn’t suffer is more of a challenge when you don’t have a scheduled lab time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      In my haste to post, I forgot all about the connection to fully online science classes. I do like what the Georgia Tech folks are doing with their mooc (use video to capture stuff, analyze, make a screencast). At Hamline, this would be very different, however, so I would guess the biggest problems might be cultural.
      I do really appreciate your comments about the usefulness of the back-and-forth that goes on in lab. One thing I think about is how I try to lower the out-of-class work for these courses since we “force” them to go to lab for 2 hours a week. Could I get some sort of asynchronous back-and-forth with them if I stepped up the out-of-class expectations?

      • Joss Ives says:

        I’m thinking you will be battling against the “savings of teaching load” upside if you try to set it up so that the asynchronous back and forth was a key feature. I think the desired learning outcomes for the labs could play a huge role in how doable this is.

  2. I’ve saw an interesting presentation by a local Community College Prof on doing labs at home and taping them, he gets a lot of pictures and videos of beer bottles along side the experiments but as I recall he was very happy with the educational outcomes. I think it was Steve Frankel but I can’t find which college he is at.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I like how you say “happy with the educational outcomes.” This year I’ve really been focussing on that instead of content, though they’re not necessarily exclusive.

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