New technology makes at-home Physics labs more engaging

Recognizing challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, Brock University’s Department of Physics has introduced an innovative way to offer first-year labs.

With the help of a laboratory device called iOLab, students perform a variety of Physics experiments at home and analyze the measured data using custom software developed by the Physics Department.

“To the best of our knowledge, no other Physics department in the country uses the iOLab platform in this way,” said Professor Kirill Samokhin, Brock’s Chair of Physics.

iOLab enables students to complete their experiments and lab reports with more precision and understanding. The wireless measurement tool includes a host of sensors such as an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a force sensor, and position/velocity wheel.

“Students gather data using the device and use our custom software, called iOLab Online, to graph and analyze the experimental variables we are studying,” said Physics Professor Edward Sternin.

The cost of the device, purchased through the Campus Store, has been offset by use of a free online textbook selected for the course through OpenStax.

An acceleration over time graph produced with the Extrema software with data gathered from the iOLab device.

The iOLab devices are also being used in a second-year Mechanics course.

The flexibility of the device allows for highly complex data sets to be acquired for analysis. This is supported by the use of eXtrema, an advanced software package developed at TRIUMF (Tri-University Meson Facility at the University of British Columbia) and currently maintained by Sternin.

Students build their own experiments from materials available at home and use the iOLab to measure their results. Since students are not limited by the materials in the classroom, they can be more creative with their designs.

Lauren Mosimann, a Business Administration student who is taking a double minor in Math and Physics, is taking the second-year Mechanics course and has been completing her experiments at home.

“In some ways it’s more interesting than the classroom lab setting,” she said. “You have to problem-solve a bit more now and it closely resembles what real field work would be like. You have to construct more of the experiment yourself, which is both fascinating and rewarding.”

After completing their lab, students meet online and discuss the experiment and how they designed and collected data.

“One student might have used a metronome, while another might use a turntable or bicycle wheel to complete their lab,” Mosimann said. “The variety of problem-solving brings a lot of new ideas to the table.”

The device also encourages students to create their own experiments to further their understanding.

“I have a nine-year-old brother and an 11-year-old sister who are both super interested in the iOLab device and physics,” Mosimann said. “Since labs are done at home now, they have been able to help me run a few. I have challenged them to design an experiment of their own that I can help them run using the iOLab device. That’s just another bonus of having labs online, my whole family is able to get involved.”

The development of the online data-analysis software for the iOLab devices was generously funded through the strategic fund of Dean of Mathematics and Science Ejaz Ahmed.

“It’s important to rise to the occasion during challenging times,” Ahmed said. “Innovation is the key to keeping students active and engaged in learning and we are proud to support the Physics Department in its creative initiative.”

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