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Interactive tool puts physics lab in the palm of your hand

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Liz  Ahlberg

Hands on Physics professor Mats Selen developed the IOLab system, built around a low-cost, easy-to-use, all-purpose handheld device that performs a myriad of functions for both introductory and advanced physics courses.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, Oct. 20, 2011 | Liz Ahlberg, Physical Sciences Editor | 217-244-1073

Physics often is the stuff of nightmares. For students, the terror lies in the expectation of mastering concepts as foreign as a never-heard language. Professors struggle to effectively teach complex concepts in a limited amount of time. And the expense of laboratory equipment is enough to make a department administrator reach for the antacids.

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“There’s nothing like having your hands on something while your brain is thinking about it,” said physics professor Mats Selen. Selen developed the IOLab system that he says has generated a lot of 'aha!' moments with students using the device in Physics 100. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Physics professor Mats Selen could hold the solution to all three group’s problems in the palm of his hand.

Selen developed the IOLab system, built around a low-cost, easy-to-use, all-purpose handheld device that performs a myriad of functions for both introductory and advanced physics courses.

“There’s nothing like having your hands on something while your brain is thinking about it,” Selen said. “Some effective learning goes on when your hands are tactilely doing something and you’re seeing it happen, as opposed to just hearing or reading about it.”

The device has two parts. One is a wireless, battery-powered black box, slightly smaller than a graphing calculator, containing a small computer, a radio chip and a variety of sensors. The other component contains a receiver and links to a computer through a USB cable. The IOLab – for Interactive Online Lab – can measure acceleration, orientation, magnetic fields, electrical signals, frequency spectra, time constants and more. A user could even measure the speed of light merely equipped with the IOLab, a piece of scrap aluminum and a ruler.

Selen is testing the IOLab and accompanying software in Physics 100, an introductory course with 500 students, many of whom have little or no physics experience. The software guides the students through a lesson and gathers data from the IOLab device for analysis.  The students can see, in real time, how a plot changes based on the motion of the wireless component.

“I’m seeing a lot of ‘aha!’ moments,” said Anthony Hegg, a teaching assistant who oversees several of the discussion sections using the IOLab. “I think they’re getting it a lot quicker than I’ve seen it before.”

Selen and colleagues have written four IOLab modules on motion, acceleration and velocity for Physics 100. For example, one unit tackles the concept of relative motion, or how a moving object appears to another object in motion. In the activity, labeled “Tumble Buggies,” students attach the two IOLab components to a pair of battery-powered toy cars. One car is rigged to go slower than the other, so the IOLab’s accelerometer and positional sensors can track their relative movements. 

“It sounds simple but it’s actually one of the hardest things they do all semester,” Selen said. “It’s very difficult to wrap your mind around relative motion. With this, you can see that by moving one part or the other or both, it changes how the speed is recorded relative to the receiver.”

The tumble buggies module gives the students four tasks. They begin with guided, simple experiments to establish the basic concepts. Then, they are asked to predict the outcomes of different scenarios – the faster car chasing the slower car, or the two cars moving in different directions. For each, the students make predictions, then design their own experiments to test their ideas. The challenge for the tumble buggies lab is to explore the different scenarios without the faster car falling off the table or the receiver-

bearing car reaching the end of its tether to the computer. 

“They’re definitely having fun with it,” Hegg said. “Since it’s also taking data on the computer, they can see the outcomes of different setups.”

Selen and his fellow physics professor Tim Stelzer were recently awarded a research grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and study the effectiveness of this “hands-on” approach to learning concepts. Ultimately, they hope that students will be able to purchase their own inexpensive IOLab devices from the campus bookstore and use these as a course supplement to perform hands-on activities in their residence hall rooms, guided by their computers. They also hope to integrate it with Smart Physics, a computer-based multimedia curriculum that Selen, Stelzer and physics professor Gary Gladding have developed to use in place of expensive textbooks.

However, Selen designed the affordable, multifunctional lab devices to reach beyond the UI. He believes the IOLab could be extremely valuable for community colleges and other institutions that lack the space or resources for a fully outfitted physics laboratory. In addition, they could enable online courses to add lab elements.

Selen is optimistic that students’ positive responses to the IOLab devices and the hands-on activities show that some are warming up to an often intimidating subject. The majority of students enrolled in introductory physics are majoring in other fields and need physics to fulfill a requirement. Selen hopes these students will remember their time in these courses fondly.

“If, 20 years down the road, they remember physics as kind of a cool class they took, that’s a huge success in my opinion,” Selen said. “That means that as citizens of the world, they may understand that it’s important for people to learn science and engineering and math. If you can do some activity with them that they enjoy and at the same time learn something, it’s a good experience.”

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