Photo of Arduino-based kits stacked in a table with plastic containers full of electronic materials for students

Department of Physics develops new remote laboratory experiences

The Case Western Reserve University community is known for innovative research that leads to transformative solutions with positive impacts on a wide range of fields. Now, these pioneering techniques and methods are leading the way during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After having to shift the delivery of their curriculum in the spring semester to ensure students’ safety, faculty members faced another challenge as remote or hybrid learning became an inevitability for the fall semester.

The Department of Physics was among the many academic units faced with a unique challenge: lab-based curriculum. Faculty members of the department took the summer to brainstorm and collaborate on ideas for how to shift their in-person laboratory experiences online without diminishing essential components of the learning process. 

The faculty members considered recording videos of experiments and sharing the data with students to analyze and write reports, but they determined this would deprive students of fully engaging with the hands-on and collaborative nature of the courses. Ultimately, faculty members were able to rebuild and develop at-home versions of their lab courses for students at every level. 

The new and distinctive remote laboratory courses, listed by student level, are:

First-year introductory labs

Course: PHYS 115, PHYS 121, PHYS 121, PHYS 123
Director: Diana Driscoll 

Photo of someone holding a device called an iOLab

These introductory labs—serving about 825 students in four different courses—have been redesigned from the ground up. Students now rent or purchase a device called an iOLab with built-in sensors and conduct experiments remotely, whether they are at home or in their residence halls. 

New experiments were designed in mechanics as well as electricity and magnetism labs, followed by newly written lab manuals. The modality of the course changed so now students perform a pre-lab before taking a quiz to make sure they are well prepared to conduct the actual lab. 

After students have completed the labs, they work in groups of two online to analyze data and write lab reports. 

TAs are available to assist students through Zoom office hours and grade their work. Since labs are asynchronous and remote, students can perform the labs whenever they set time aside to do so as long as they meet the deadlines for the quizzes and lab reports.

Sophomore experimental electronics labs 

Course: PHYS 203
Instructors: John Ruhl and Lydia Kisley

Photo showing the contents of an Arduino-based kit in plastic containers full of electronic materials for students

Using Arduino-based kits, students are able to complete nearly all of the same tasks they would in the lab but remotely while hooked up to their computers, rather than using expensive lab equipment. The kits are less precise and can’t function at the same high speeds, but all the basic principles remain the same. 

Students received Arduino-based kits that include:

  • An Arduino mounted next to a large protoboard
  • Two small cards that talk to the Arduino as well as handle analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion
  • A set of electronic components (R’s, C’s, diodes, transistors, op-amps, LEDs, a relay, switches, sensors [temperature, magnetic field, light] and two motors)

Students were required to purchase wire strippers, a multimeter and a free-standing webcam they can use to point down at their circuit so the instructor and other students can help debug issues in real-time. The kits cost approximately $150 in parts and are intended to be reused next year, even if labs return to being in-person courses.

Junior and senior advanced labs

Instructors: Kathy Kash and Ken Singer

Photo of a lab experiment on a desk with a webcam pointed at it and showing on a computer screen in the background

A subset of experiments from the advanced lab courses—along with an additional experiment and exercise—were chosen and converted to run entirely or almost entirely remote with minimal assistance from an on-site instructor or teaching assistant. The first three weeks of class will be remote as students figure out how to control the instruments and effectively work as lab partners online. 

Around two-thirds of the students will start the semester on campus or nearby and come into the lab on a schedule that permits one student at a particular experiment at a time with one or two lab partners participating in a Zoom breakout room. The instructor and TAs will be providing help with troubleshooting through Zoom.

Tell us about your innovative approaches 

Share how you’ve adapted your classes and labs for remote and hybrid instruction in the comments.