Educational Reconstruction of a Physics Labwork Course for Physics Students

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Abstract

Labwork courses are an important component in academic physics education for a long time now. However, as the physicists’ everyday working situation, also demands on labwork courses have changed over the past decades. As a consequence, an increasing discussion arose concerning the aims and design of labwork courses at University; especially as there is a particular amount of studies showing that the aims connected to labwork courses are either inadequately met or unmet at all. As a consequence the physics department at the University of Düsseldorf decided to have the introductory physics labwork course redesigned to cover relevant and recent physics contents in line with recent findings of science education research.

Based on an empirically well founded constructivistic learning model (von Aufschnaiter & Welzel, 1997) the Model of Educational Reconstruction (Kattmann, Duit, Komorek & Gropengießer, 1997) was used in an adapted form to structure the development and research parts of the process. At first the demands of experts and learners on the to-be-developed labwork course were investigated. For that purpose open surveys were carried out with lecturers and graduate students on the one hand and freshmen on the other hand. Both groups were asked about which aims they think should be met by the labwork course and which contents they think should be covered. As to the aims, development of experimental skills – especially the handling of measuring devices - and scientific thinking – especially the methods of planning and setting up an experiment – is desired. With respect to content, coverage of the classic topics of electricity, optics, mechanics, and thermodynamics is demanded. Additionally, demands originating from the constructivistic understanding of learning were taken into account: learning is an intrinsic personal process, which is dependent on the specific situation and proceeds along an increasing complexity of tasks.

According to the formulated demands, a physics laboratory course was designed and implemented in three parts: “Devices”, “Methods” and “Projects”. In the first part, focus is set on measuring devices, the second emphasizes methods for planning and setting up experiments. While dealing with standard physics contents students are supposed to learn how to use those devices and methods. For that purpose tutorials were constructed of sequences of experimental tasks with increasing complexity (Welzel, 1998). Task sequences and consequently tutorials were specifically designed to foster development of a conceptual understanding of devices and methods instead of having students use devices and methods according to “cookbook recipes”. This way, students are supposed to develop experimental and scientific thinking skills and thus be prepared for the third part of the course, in which they have to develop, implement, analyse and document small research projects in groups.

In course of a first run of the labwork course with 34 students the “Devices” and the “Methods” part were evaluated in a pre-post-design by specifically developed knowledge and experimental tests. Results showed that, after taking part in the laboratory course, the majority of the students knew about and of eight videotaped students all students were able to use the devices and methods dealt with in the course. However, it had to be stated, that in case of difficulties most of the videotaped students fell back to a trial-and-error approach. In consequence in the run-up of a second cycle tutorials were optimised with respect to development of a thorough understanding of the devices and methods. The consequent run and evaluation of the course with 41 students altogether and again eight students videotaped showed that the majority of the students in case of difficulties relied on theoretical approaches. Therefore the “Devices” and “Methods” part can be considered a sufficient preparation for the “Project” part of the labwork course.

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