Undergraduate mechanics laboratory classes have frequently been taught with a primary goal of demonstrating principles successfully through experimentation and a secondary goal of teaching proper experimental techniques, among others. Historically, this set of priorities has motivated laboratory courses to provide students with prescribed experimental methods, i.e. a “recipe” to follow. Because mechanics principles are already taught in the associated lecture portion of our mechanics classes, demonstration of them in the laboratory may be considered redundant.
There may be an opportunity to enhance the educational outcomes for our graduates by altering the priorities of lab courses. Industry feedback suggests that our graduates would benefit from improving their ability to design experiments. In addition, research has demonstrated that inquiry‐style labs (in which the exact sequence of steps is not given to students) often promote the development of these skills and may lead to better preparation for future learning.
In an early effort to address this issue, we began requiring students to design their own experiment to perform with the given lab equipment, which included analysis of independent, dependent, & control variables and development of a set of experimental procedures. Students would complete this exercise in the first half hour of the lab session, producing a handwritten document that contained their proposed experimental procedures. However, to satisfy the primary goal, students were still assigned a recipe to use for their hands‐on experimental work. Informal observation of student behavior under these conditions suggested that their interest in the lab work was poor: that they were not engaging intellectually in their experimental work, and that each group of students frequently had multiple disengaged members.
These observations motivated us to deprioritize the goal of demonstrating mechanics principles experimentally. Instead of following a recipe, students have been given freedom to design and perform their own experiments by using the equipment provided to satisfy a given set of objectives. Informal observations by teaching assistants indicated marked improvement in student engagement and relatively low rate of failed experiments.
This paper reports on a study designed to formalize the observations of the difference in student engagement between labs where a recipe is provided and labs for which students are only allowed to use their own experimental design. Lab sections were randomly assigned to complete each style of labs. Where possible, TAs taught students under both treatment methods. Lab sessions were videotaped so that student behaviors can be observed and coded for formal analysis. A “challenge” lab exercise was administered to assess whether the differing treatment results in improved analyses during the data acquisition stage of the experiment. Diagnostic midterm exam questions were given to assess whether critical thinking skills are affected by the difference in lab treatment.
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