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Advanced Interactive Lab Experiences

Physics professor Keith Stein on Bethel's unique lab experiences and why he loves physics.

Our department has put ourselves on the map in past decades for our approach to lab work and course-related lab work. Rather than a traditional lab we have project-oriented lab experiences. So it’s a mini research experience. More real world. There’s more creative problem solving on the part of the students, rather than a cookie-cutter recipe approach to labs.

The project for our National Science Foundation (NSF) grant focuses on the lab experience. The purpose of the proposal is to take some of our lab experiences and package them in a way that they can be available online.

We're creating interactive web-based video geared towards the advanced laboratory. So users can experience the lab and see what’s involved in research without having to go through all the tinkering and setup. The user will have interactive controls. They’ll be able to control some dials to set parameters, and that will bring them to video that shows the information that’s obtained in the lab. They’ll also be able to do analysis.

There are multiple uses. We plan on using the videos in our classes so students can get a taste of what’s going on in the lab environment before diving into all the complexities of getting things to work in the lab. It’ll also be available online for groups that don’t have these labs. Hopefully it’ll generate some interest and provide incentive to carry out these experiences and experiments at other colleges and universities.

We're very involved in research. Our focus is on research geared towards undergraduate student involvement. We believe we’re doing some pretty neat research here. Not watered down. It’s carried out by active student participation. Each summer we have students involved in research. The research experiences in our classrooms are unique. Undergraduate involvement in research is an important part of what we do.

I like that Bethel's physics department is geared towards students and teaching. I enjoy getting to see students…see the lightbulb turn on, or see the excitement, when they see and understand and realize they can do this.

There are advantages to the way we do our lab experiences. There are disadvantages that would probably prevent a larger school from even going in that track. If our classes are getting up into the mid 20s as far as students, all of a sudden carrying out a lab in this approach involves overseeing 6 or 7 project groups. When we present what we’re doing at different conferences, people in the physics community recognize that it’s a labor-intensive approach and the department has to be really committed to it. But we think it works. So we’ve stuck to it.

There’s the benefit that there’s not a known solution. So students might actually get frustrated, because there’s no set direction of 'here’s what you need to do, here’s how you need to get there.' But in the process, the students are the owners of the solution. There’s a satisfaction in getting things to work. There’s also a deeper understanding when we can figure these things out.

Students own the project. They’ll feel like they really are doing creative problem solving. It also allows students to bring in experiences from other classes. I teach a fluids course. There will always be some students who come in having taken optics or lasers, enabling some optical diagnostics in their fluids experiment. Most of them will have had computer methods. Most will have taken electronics. So this approach to project work allows students to utilize some past experiences as tools. Certainly some students will come in not having had optics, but by having a group approach to the project, that’s not really needed. Students can bring what they have and contribute and rely on another team member to bring in the other experiences. A lot like the way it works in the real world, where you’re not an expert in every area, but you work as a team.

Physics describes the world around us. We can use basic laws to describe the world, and when we actually see that uncovered, it’s pretty satisfying. In my area of fluid mechanics, we’ve had some projects looking at high-speed supersonic flows. Events that occur in very small fractions of a second. We can describe what we expect to see based on physical laws. We can believe in what we’re going to see. And when we’re able to show that, with high-speed video or some experimental technique, there’s something to that.

It’s exciting to see things you can’t see with your naked eye. That would be one of my favorite things about physics. Uncovering secrets. Actually describing certain behaviors. It’s complex behavior, but it’s very simple laws that are describing those complex behaviors.

More info about Keith


College of Arts & Sciences

White Bear Lake, MN

Broomball, travel (Switzerland is my favorite destination), skiing, college football (Bethel Royals, Nebraska Cornhuskers), pro football (Vikings)