Suggestions on Physics 429/621 Grad Lab Problems

Date: 4­2­97

Last year a committee was formed to look into general issues associated with the entire undergraduate Physics experimental program. We formed the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Committee and began the first quarter of 1997 by examining Physics 429/621 (the Grad Lab). It is well known, the problems with Grad Lab go beyond old and broken equipment, and include inadequate graduate student preparation, excessive time spent by students in the Lab, and persistent student and faculty dissatisfaction with the course. Accordingly, we tried to step back and take a broader look, rather than simply deciding what pieces of new equipment should be purchased.

Since February 4th, the Committee has met six times to discuss the pedagogy of the course, educate ourselves about the causes of the problems, and devise possible remedies. Our first conclusion is that a well­run Grad Lab is an important part of the graduate Physics program. Ultimately, physics is an experimental science and our students need to see how theoretical ideas which are presented in the classroom are connected to the real world. Unfortunately, in recent years many of our entering graduate students have had little laboratory or other practical experience, while over the same period, experimental techniques have gotten progressively more sophisticated. In light of this, a Graduate Laboratory is probably even more important now than in the past. Our second conclusion is that several major changes need to be made to Grad Lab. After these changes are made, it will be possible to decide what equipment should be replaced.

The following is our specific set of suggestions for what needs to be done and how to proceed: (Note that numbers 6 and 8 have been approved by the graduate committee).

(1) The number of experiments in the lab should be cut from the present number of about 33 to about 10. The exact number of labs which we keep will depend on the results of an evaluation described below. The main reason we are recommending this reduction is that it will make the lab more manageable. At present it is very difficult for a single faculty member to be an expert in all of the experiments. When a student gets into difficulty on an unfamiliar experiment, it is difficult for the instructor to offer much assistance. With fewer experiments, the lab will also be less costly to maintain and upgrade over the long term. A reduction will also open up room for duplicate versions of an experiment to be introduced and new experiments to be brought in.

(2) We recommend that the reduction in the number of experiments be carried out in the Fall 1997 semester by Wendell Hill and Bob Gammon, who have both recently taught the Lab. To filter out which experiments will be kept, they will use a scoring sheet to evaluate each experiment for factors such as: pedagogical purpose, type of experimental techniques used, areas of Physics represented, degree of difficulty, relevance to modern day physics, data analysis techniques required, operational status of equipment, support from research groups, and overlap with other experiments.

(3) Once the experiments have been selected, an instructors manual will be assembled which not only covers the basic physics and pedagogy of each experiment, but will also alert the instructor to pitfalls or places where students have had difficulties. This should allow the instructors to be much more effective and help to alleviate some of the time pressure students feel in completing experiments.

(4) A proposal should be written to the NSF (or possibly other agencies) to obtain sufficient funds to modernize and upgrade the Grad Lab. Broken or outdated equipment has a serious impact on the operation of the Lab and the time students spend in the Lab. It has been a source of frustration for both students and instructors. Given that Department and University resources have been inadequate for maintaining the Grad Lab, we need to seek external funding. We suggest that the proposal writing effort be made in the Fall of 1997, consistent with NSF deadlines, and recommend that the effort be headed by Professors Hill and Gammon with assistance from the rest of the Lab Committee, as needed.

(5) To implement the above recommendations, we suggest that at least three faculty members be assigned to teach 429/621 in the Fall of 1997, including Drs. Hill and Gammon. It will take a significant commitment of time, manpower, and varied expertise to assemble a competitive proposal and follow through on our other recommendations. Three instructors should allow the necessary work to be done in a timely fashion while minimizing the impact on class instruction.

(6) Change the prerequisites for Physics 621 to include an upper level course in experimental physics at the level of Physics 395. A significant cause of student and faculty frustration with the course is inadequate student preparation. To do well in the Lab requires a solid background in undergraduate laboratory Physics, a background which many of our entering graduate students do not possess. Students with an inadequate background will be advised to first pass an undergraduate laboratory class at the level of Physics 395. To allow grad students to get credit for this course, we recommend forming a 400 level section of Physics 395, which would meet at the same time and do the same experiments.

(7) The time students spend in Grad Lab needs to be reduced to what is reasonable for a three credit course, i.e. the average student should spend no more than 15 hours on the course each week. We believe that the above suggestions 1­6 should help with some aspects of this problem, however, instructors will need to council students on the time they are spending in the Lab so that it does not harm their other class work. A key step in this process is faculty guidance in the selection of the project and the setting of clear boundaries for completion of an experiment.

(8) The Graduate Laboratory requirement must be completed within two calendar years of matriculation in the program or by the end of the semester in which the Qualifying Examination is passed, whichever is later. We feel that to gain the benefits of the graduate lab it should be taken early in a students career not as a last step to graduation.

(9) We recommend that at least two lab technicians share some responsibility for the operation of the Grad Lab. We are concerned that at present the continuing operation of Grad Lab depends on the irreplaceable expertise of one highly skilled individual, Charles Smarsh. Because of the age of much of the equipment and the overall complexity of the experiments, it would take a truly heroic effort for someone else to step into the present Grad Lab and learn everything necessary to keep the Lab running. In any event, in light of the many changes suggested above, some additional assistance over the next year could be put to good use.

(10) The Department needs to invest sufficient funds to make the Lab a productive component of the curriculum. The above changes need to be made regardless of whether or not we are successful in obtaining external support for upgrading the Lab. The Lab presently depends on substantial continued support from the Department, mainly for faculty and other personnel for running the lab, and to a lesser extent for repairing/replacing old equipment. The reduction in the number of experiments should make it more feasible to upgrade the Lab and perhaps allow some reallocation of the support.

We believe that proceeding along the lines of the above suggestions is in the best interest of the Department and will correct serious problems which have developed in the Grad Lab over the last 20 years. Clearly, a significant investment of resources is required from the Department. However, the above changes should produce a substantial impact on our graduate and undergraduate curriculum, and the Department will come out stronger in the end.

Finally, we should mention for your convenience, we have begun to make use of the World Wide Web to make Committee documents more accessible to the Department. Our earlier memos can be found under Departmental Committees on the Physics Department's Web page.


C.C. Chang, M. Coplan, D. Currie, D. Boyd,

B. Gammon, J. Goodman, N. Hadley, W. Hill,

G. Mason, F. Skiff, F. Wellstood