UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a classroom on Penn State’s University Park campus, a group of about 40 students toss rectangular, plastic measurement tools into the air. As each red and white device propels upward, graphs on nearby laptops form in real time in relation to the device’s speed.
For the past year, this has been a common scene in Eric Hudson’s introductory, major-specific physics courses. In conjunction with departmental colleagues, Hudson — an associate professor of physics — has been piloting an innovative approach to conducting experiments through use of the iOLab device, a portable data collector developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The iOLab is a multifunctional measurement device (not much larger than a calculator) that lets students gather and interpret physics data in real time. Equipped with a variety of measurement tools, including a gyroscope, accelerometer and microphone, the device allows students to collect data types ranging from acceleration and velocity to sound frequency and temperature.
As data is collected, the iOLab device wirelessly communicates to the corresponding open-source software, where it displays and graphs data points as they occur on each student's laptop.
Integrating labs and lectures
To test the device’s effectiveness in the classroom, Hudson received assistance from Louis Leblond, a lecturer of physics and recipient of the 2015 Tombros Fellowship of Digital Learning, and Melissa Hicks, director of the Office of Digital Learning in the Eberly College of Science.
In fall 2015, Leblond — the originator of the iOLab pilot program at Penn State — collaborated with Hudson to provide students with iOLab devices to use during lectures in place of traditional lab equipment and separate lab sessions.
Traditionally, lab equipment is immoveable and single-function, requiring students’ two-hour weekly labs to take place in properly equipped classrooms outside of their regularly scheduled class meetings.
According to Leblond, replacing these traditional lab setups with a multifunctional tool like iOLab allowed physics educators to closely align lab experiments with in-class teachings.
“Instead of going to the lab rooms in Osmond Building where all the equipment is, students could use their laptops and iOLabs and essentially complete their experiments anywhere,” Leblond said.
In order to incorporate the iOLab devices into the physics curriculum, Leblond worked with colleagues like Hudson to rethink the value behind lab work.
“Using this technology has prompted us to reexamine our learning objectives for the labs,” Leblond said. “These objectives were always implicit, but now we're really trying to focus on developing critical-thinking skills through an integration of labs and lectures.”
For Hudson, this integration made it easier for students to connect hands-on experiences with complex concepts.
“Because of the device’s portability, I could easily fit the experimental part of physics into the lecture,” Hudson said. “So I could have the students pull out their iOLabs and make a 20-minute measurement or analysis that directly relates to what we’ve been talking about.”
And Hudson isn’t the only professor using the iOLab device at Penn State — during the upcoming fall semester, approximately 1,000 students taking introductory physics courses will be entering the pilot program.
Making physics more accessible
According to Hudson, replacing single-function desktop equipment with a multifunctional, portable data collector also allowed students to expand their learning environments outside of the classroom.
“Since students could take the device home with them, they could begin to study physics in the real world and see it's not something we just make up in the classroom,” Hudson said. “So through iOLab, they could potentially study and understand the physics behind dropping something on the floor at home.”
And although students might not have spent their free time conducting physics experiments in their dorm rooms, Hudson said students enjoyed the simplicity of iOLab, with some students even going so far as to customize their devices with heart-shaped stickers.
According to Corey Herr — a sophomore who took Hudson’s introductory physics course this past spring — the iOLab device provided deeper insight into broad physics concepts.
“The iOLab helped create an intuition for the physics concepts we discussed in class,” Herr said. “It was great to turn classroom knowledge into a real-world perspective.”
As for Hudson, being able to witness the joy students got out of learning with iOLab has been irreplaceable.
“Using iOLab enabled students to get a more personal feeling of what they were studying and helped them see the interaction between the data and the phenomena they were investigating,” Hudson said. “And for me, it’s been a really neat experience to witness just how much fun students can have with physics.”