Physics Is a Contact Sport

Several MIT students peering into a spherical apparatus with various wires attached.

Students perform an experiment in relativistic dynamics in MIT’s Junior Lab.
(Image by OCW)

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

If you’re exceptionally gifted, you might be able to learn the established facts of physics by reading books and articles and by attending lectures. But if you want to contribute actively to the field, you need two other forms of expertise: skill in designing and conducting experiments, and a working knowledge of how to communicate your work to other physicists and to the world in general. MIT’s Junior Lab helps students develop firsthand expertise in both these areas.

What Is Junior Lab?

Junior Lab is a sequence of two undergraduate courses, officially designated as 8.13 Experimental Physics I and 8.14 Experimental Physics II, that most physics majors take in the fall and spring of their junior year (hence the name). As Nergis Mavalvala, Associate Head of MIT’s Physics department, explains:

Junior Lab is a keystone course of the MIT physics curriculum. This challenging and memorable course exposes students to diverse techniques in experimental physics, and develops scientific writing and oral presentation skills….Students learn to make measurements using sophisticated apparatus, analyze their data, compare their results to other empirical determinations of the same physical quantities or phenomena, write up their findings as a professional publishable paper, and communicate their results in an oral presentation — all skills with which a practicing physicist must be conversant.

Doing Hands-On Physics

During their year in Junior Lab, students perform a total of ten experiments covering a range of phenomena whose discoveries led to major advances in physics, such as Compton scattering, relativistic dynamics, cosmic-ray muons, radio astrophysics, laser spectroscopy, superconductivity, and quantum information processing. Students work in pairs to set up each experiment, to make measurements, and to analyze and interpret their data. After each experiment, each pair of lab partners participates in a one-hour oral examination and discussion with their instructors. Both students bring their lab notebooks to the oral exam session, and all oral exams are video-recorded so that students can review and refine their presentation technique.

At the end of the fall term, each student delivers a public oral presentation to peers, friends, and faculty in the style of a session at a professional conference. Near the end of the spring term, each pair of lab partners designs and conducts an original, open-ended experiment, after which they summarize their results in a scientific poster presented in an open poster session.

A Wealth of Information

The richness of the Junior Lab experience is reflected in the richness of the materials pertaining to the course on OpenCourseWare. In addition to the syllabus, the course on OCW includes the following:

  • Detailed descriptions of the standard experiments students in Junior Lab perform.
  • A set of guidelines for safety in the lab, including policies to maintain chemical hygiene, environmental safety, electrical safety, radiation safety, cryogenic safety, laser safety, and biological safety.
  • Itemized instructions on how to keep and use a lab notebook to record experimental procedures and results.

For educators and those interested in pedagogical theory, though, the most exciting aspect of Junior Lab on OCW is the wealth of interview videos, in which the course’s professors, other members of the instructional team, and several students share their insights into what’s special about the way Junior Lab is taught. A few highlights:

Junior Lab is based on the notion that the best way to learn physics is experientially, through hands-on learning. Professor Janet Conrad strongly feels that physics is “a contact sport.” In the video clip below, Professor Conrad gives a simple hands-on demonstration of electromagnetic induction that could be used to make physics real even for early elementary students:

(What’s going on in this video? Ordinarily, a dropped object falls half a meter in about a third of a second, but when Professor Conrad drops the magnet into the copper pipe, it takes almost four seconds to fall that far, because the magnet’s motion induces an electric current in the pipe, which in turn generates a magnetic field that brakes the magnet’s fall.)

The structure of the course is also designed to develop skills in collaboration and teamwork in scientific research. Students in Junior Lab don’t just conduct their experiments in teams of two; lab partners also participate in oral exams together, and work together to design their final experiment and to produce and present their poster for the presentation at the end of the spring term. This collaborative approach has clear benefits, but also brings with it some extra challenges, as Professor Gunther Roland explains.

Dr. Sean Robinson, Head of Junior Lab Technical Staff, discusses how the approach to teaching the course has changed in recent years, flipping the classroom to “get the students the information they need at the time when they’re most ready to learn it.” Data analysis, Dr. Robinson says, is best learned as you go along rather than by front-loading information in a lecture hall. Student Henry Shackleton agrees, emphasizing that the independent learning fostered by a flipped-classroom format meshes well with the nature of lab work, in which students are on their own much of the time.

One of the core tenets of Junior Lab is that science communication is a crucial professional competency for anyone wishing to pursue a research career. After all, progress in physics or any other scientific field requires not only that research be conducted and discoveries made, but also that experimental results and discoveries be communicated to other scientists. To help develop students’ communication skills, the instructional team for Junior Lab includes not only scientists but also a communication instructor, Senior Lecturer Atissa Banuazizi. “I think it’s somewhat of a misconception that communication can be separated from the work that scientists do,” Ms. Banuazizi says. “Because so much of what scientists do in their daily lives is communication. If you are a scientist, and you are doing really, really exciting work, that work is not going to have any kind of impact if you can’t tell people about it.”

Whether you’re a student, an independent learner, or an instructor pondering how best to teach the concepts of physics and the skills needed by working scientists, we encourage you to check out the rich collection of Junior Lab course material available to you on OCW.

The OCW course presents all the materials students use to carry out [their assigned] tasks, complemented by instructor, teaching assistant, and student perspectives on how the course is taught. It should serve as a unique guide for students and instructors on how to build and execute experiments, analyze data, and present results in effective written and oral reports.  -Nergis Mavalvala

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