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.
- Flexible time for students
- Savings of teaching load
- Students need to design their own experiments
- In physics, especially compared to, say, chemistry, safety is not that big of an issue.
- The students aren’t shown good techniques
- They won’t know if their data is any good
- There will be quite a variation of their equipment
- 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.