Reinventing physics: college courses during the Covid


Since the campus went largely virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic last spring, professors in the Department of Physics at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth have reinvented the way physics is taught in college.

Fortunately for the students, pphysics teachers are committed to providing students with virtually the same education as they would in person.

Professor Alan Hirshfeld, for example, redesigned one of his lab courses around a microcontroller based on the open source Arduino platform.

“I had one and played with it. It turns out you can create a viable educational lab course that a student can actually take at home, ”he said.

Hirshfeld normally teaches a course in Electronic Devices and Circuits, which focuses on the design and creation of circuits that demonstrate the physics of electricity.

It requires equipment that students cannot access at home and makes extensive use of in-class troubleshooting techniques.

Bringing that tactile experience online has been “quite an education for a seasoned instructor like myself,” said Hirshfeld, who has been teaching physics since 1978.

Hirshfeld eventually discovered Arduino, an educational prototyping system that enables the creation of programmable microcontroller-based electronics – “And that would only cost students $ 35,” he said.

Hirshfeld says that after assessing the value of this style of Arduino, he “put together a program based on this microcontroller” and has been using the platform ever since, signaling success in both what the students produced. and knowledge that Hirshfeld believes the students have retained.

“Students could finish a project, tear it up and move on,” he noted.

Hirshfeld also shared his plans to reuse sensors from smartphones using an educational program called PhyPhox to collect data on gravity, light, acceleration, rotation, atmospheric pressure, and geomagnetic fields – data that smartphones are constantly collecting.

As part of the new model, students complete the practical work using online simulation software such as the modules offered on the Physics aviary, a resource shared by Hirshfeld, which offers a wider range of experiences than is normally provided in the duration of a semester-long course.

Other faculty members have been forced to make adjustments and have developed methods that they also plan to implement in the future.

Professor David Kagan said he does not intend to return to a traditional mode of simple conference ”, a feeling shared by his colleagues.

Kagan normally teaches introductory level physics courses which often have sections of up to 90 students.

Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on so many students throughout a class session on Zoom, Kagan instead divided the class into smaller sections that meet once a week, a decision which worked best for students.

“Students are supposed to read passages in textbooks, do problems, then come to class and discuss the material,” he said, noting that he had considered this type of model even before the pandemic.

This style of teaching allowed Kagan to develop an assessment of student understanding and retention that facilitates adjustments.

Kagan noted that during a summer course – held on a trial basis for the fall semester – student retention “didn’t appear to be damaged.”

He added that “It was a lot of fun teaching the summer school because we had some really fun conversations that don’t usually happen in a normal physics class.”

Zoom encourages participation, a feeling that Professors Robert Fisher and Hirshfeld agreed has been extremely beneficial in measuring student progress in their own courses.

Kagan and his fellow physics professors have spent this year designing a semester-long curriculum that he says needs to be taught “more slowly.”

He’s not talking about the kind of speed that forces students to rush through grades; it refers to “carefully chosen material, in terms of what students should really know about this course”.

Many physics courses have laboratory components that demonstrate the concepts discussed in the course compared to Hirshfeld’s course, which is designed to be primarily laboratory work.

Fisher says that in a traditional lab, students interact with teaching assistants who closely supervise the set-up of experiments designed to demonstrate the concepts covered in the course.

“The students would have to back up two meters, the TA should explain it, make adjustments, change the setup to get it right, and then disinfect everything,” Fisher said.

These labs never took place.

Although Hirshfeld’s Electronics Course is an upper-level course for physics students only, Fisher and Kagan were optimistic about the possibility of translating the level of student involvement into the learning process into D-level courses. ‘introduction.

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