Take-home kits essential to online physics labs

When Cornell College senior Adam Plotkin first learned he’d be taking Introductory Physics II online from home due to the global pandemic, he was curious how his professor would attempt to solidify what he called “tough-to-grasp” course material.

Adam Plotkin with Lab kit
Adam Plotkin at home in Wisconsin with the contents of the lab kit Professor Derin Sherman mailed him.

As he was wondering, Professor of Physics and Engineering Derin Sherman was spending his extended spring break doing just that—reconfiguring his final two block courses of the year to an online format.

“To my amazement, in the matter of a few weeks, Professor Sherman was able to take the whole lab component and transfer it to an online/at-home lab,” Plotkin says. “Similar to an on-campus course, the block plan allowed us to learn the material in lecture, and then apply said material in the lab component that very same day.

“This class exceeded all of my expectations of not only what could be accomplished in 18 days, but more importantly, what could be accomplished in 18 days in an online format.”

Sherman sprung into action by assembling and mailing take-home lab kits to each student, then continued to come into West Science Hall daily to create online demonstration videos, record lectures, and locate resources such as open-source materials from MIT.

Closeup of the components of the Physics II lab kit, provided by student Yumeng Tao.

He taught two physics courses, one during Block 7 and one Block 8. Each course lasted 18 days over 3 ½ weeks on Cornell’s One Course At A Time block planAs with all blocks at Cornell, he taught only one class, and his students took only that class. 

“Online teaching works effectively under the block plan because students have the time to properly explore the activities they are assigned, which is harder to do under a semester plan because of competing demands,” Sherman says. 

After teaching both physics courses online from start to finish, Sherman has narrowed down what he says are three essentials to making remote labs successful:

  • Provide students with a take-home kit.
  • Provide online materials that permit students to understand the subtleties of what they’re doing.
  • Provide the ability to collaborate effectively.

Cornell is planning to hold courses on campus in the fall, if it is safe to do so. However, if Cornell needs to offer more online lab courses, Sherman is convinced they will be even better.

“The really impressive stuff will be next year, because I’ve already thought about how I’d have to teach labs next year if we still have to teach remotely.”

Many Cornell College professors found new and unique ways to connect with students during distance learning classes Blocks 7 and 8. This is part of a series of stories about those courses.