Designing Design into the Introductory Electromagnetism Laboratory

J. A. McNeil

Physics Department, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado 80302


In the last decade the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) significantly reformed the criteria by which engineering programs are accredited. The new criteria are called Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000). Not surprisingly, engineering design constitutes an essential component of these criteria. The Engineering Physics program at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) underwent an ABET general review and site visit in the fall of 2000. In preparation for this review and as part of a campus-wide curriculum reform the Physics Department was challenged to include elements of design in its introductory laboratories. The new laboratory forms an important component of the reformed course that respects the psychological principles of learner-based education. As part of the background research for this reform, several laboratory programs were reviewed including traditional and studio modes as well as a novel laboratory used by Cal Tech and MIT called "ZAP!" which incorporates design activities well-aligned with the EC2000 criteria but in a nontraditional delivery mode. The CSM reformed laboratory, including experiments modified from ZAP!, incorporates significant design experiences delivered in a standard laboratory format. This paper reviews the reformed introductory electromagnetism course and discusses how the laboratories are integrated into the pedagogy along with design activities. In their new form the laboratories can be readily adopted by physics departments using traditional delivery formats.

I. Introduction

In the last decade the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) overhauled the way engineering programs are accredited. The new Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC2000 )1, in addition to adopting an outcome-based approach to academic achievement include institutional and program management criteria as well. The goal is to have academic program management practices be responsive to the discipline as well as the program's constituents through a system of continuous assessment and feedback. Physics departments at institutions with ABET-accredited engineering programs play a central supporting role in meeting the so-called "professional component" of the EC2000. However, under the new criteria fundamental physics need not be delivered by physicists; engineering programs are free to find new ways to teach fundamental physics if they choose; so it is important for physics departments supporting engineering programs to pay attention. Specifically, Criteria 3 includes eleven abilities to be acquired by each student. These range from an ability to use basic science and math in applied contexts to the ability to design a system, component, or process. While physics departments have a clear role in developing abilities in science and math, a well-designed introductory physics sequence can play an important early role in developing design skills as well as science literacy.

The purpose of this work is to present the case study of how the Physics Department at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) designed the second introductory physics course, PH200 - Introduction to Electromagnetism and Optics, to align with EC2000. We will review the pedagogic foundations and learning objectives of the new course with a specific emphasis on how the laboratory experiences were planned to support the course learning objectives while incorporating design elements. While there is much in the implementation of the new course and associated laboratories that are peculiar to CSM, we believe that there are enough features shared with other physics programs (such as the service to engineering programs, old facilities, traditional delivery modes, and resource limitations) that will make this study widely useful. Technical details about the specific experiments will be presented elsewhere.

CSM is a small (2600 undergraduates) public institution focused on science and engineering with 8 of its 11 degree programs ABET accredited - including the Engineering Physics degree2. The student profile is similar to that of the College of Engineering at a large university. The incoming students have a mean combined SAT score of about 1250 and are generally highly motivated. All students at CSM take the introductory physics sequence. It is calculus-based consisting of two 4.5 credit courses, PH100 (mechanics)3 and PH200 (electromagnetism and optics)4. There is no segregation of students by discipline in introductory physics. In normal sequence, following the introductory calculus course, a freshman would take PH100 in the spring term followed by PH200 in the fall term of the sophomore year. In preparation for the school's general review by ABET under EC2000 and as part of a campus-wide curriculum reform effort, the CSM Physics Department has implemented a new curriculum and instruction for the calculus-based introductory physics sequence. With its own program undergoing ABET scrutiny, the physics department paid special attention to addressing EC2000 issues in the design of the new courses. Several of the PH200 experiments were modified from a novel laboratory used by Cal Tech and MIT called "ZAP!"5 which incorporates design activities well-aligned with the EC2000 criteria but in a nontraditional delivery mode.

The general goals for the introductory physics reform were (1) to design an introductory physics sequence with learning objectives derived from constituent needs, (2) to adopt pedagogic strategies based on the psychological principles of learner-based education, and (3) to deliver the course within available facilities and staffing. Interestingly, these goals are interdependent and constitute a complex design problem in itself. Two faculty with background and interest in education issues were put in charge of the reform efforts, Prof. Thomas Furtak for PH100 and the author for PH200. The story of the PH100 revision into a studio format is discussed in detail in Ref. [6] while this paper discusses the PH200 case.

The paper is organized as follows. The next section discusses the pedagogic principles, course learning objectives, and supporting laboratory objectives used to guide the laboratory design. Section III reviews the instructional mode that was adopted to meet these objectives within the space and staffing constraints. Section IV discusses three example laboratories describing how each incorporates design elements while reinforcing lecture concepts. Section V discusses the assessment plan and some preliminary results. The summary and conclusion constitute the last section.

II. Pedagogic Foundations

The Physics Department at CSM has adopted the psychological principles of learner-based education in its approach to pedagogic practice. The basic ideas are articulated in the landmark 2000 National Research Council report "How People Learn"7. First, human understanding is constructed from existing knowledge in some socially relevant context (Vygotsky 8). Second, student-centered pedagogic practice must recognize that: (1) each student comes with a vast array of pre-existing knowledge he uses to construct an understanding of the novel, (2) each student has a belief about his own ability to learn the subject which can profoundly influence his ability to learn, and (3) teaching to understanding (as opposed to rote-learning) requires a deep context-organized body of facts and analytic skills as well as the ability to meta-process (think about the problem-solving activity itself).

In the context of the introductory physics sequence these principles guide our desire to integrate the laboratory and lecture components to insure that new knowledge is grounded in some meaningful and memorable context, often an engineering application which is socially relevant through its connection to the students' future professions. Furthermore, the learning activities are designed in a graduated way to connect to pre-existing knowledge and to foster self-belief in one's ability to learn the subject. Teaching to understanding requires that we avoid the "tyranny of the curriculum" by adopting learning objectives balanced between the content (factual) and process (analysis) goals. With these thoughts in mind we have adopted the following broad course learning objectives for PH200. Each student will

1. understand the fundamental laws of electromagnetism as summarized in Maxwell's equations and related concepts and principles,

2. be able to apply these laws in conjunction with the fundamental laws of motion using calculus, and

3. be able to construct an appropriate understanding of the electromagnetic properties of physical systems in an applied context.

Of course, the devil is in the details - what is meant by "understand", "apply", and "construct"? We take these to be operationally defined as for example in the ability to recognize, articulate, analyze, and evaluate some electromagnetic phenomenon. For example, when confronted with a novel phenomenon, the successful student has the background knowledge and analytic skills to construct an appropriate understanding. This activity includes recognizing the relevant physics principles and models involved, identifying relevant degrees of freedom, articulating (verbally and mathematically at the level of calculus) the principles for the case, analyzing (logically, graphically, and/or analytically solving for the desired unknown features), and evaluating the result (with respect to reasonableness and similarities to a repertoire of canonical cases). The applied context suggests social relevance through the practice of engineering.

These objectives are an advanced form of scientific literacy and can be realized (or partially so) only in a multiyear program of study. The introductory physics sequence plays an important early role in this process. One important element to meeting these objectives is the integration of all aspects of the learning experience - lectures, recitations, homework, and labs. Therefore, we do not have a stand-alone laboratory course but instead work to integrate laboratory activities with lecture lessons. We use web-based homework assignments (Computer Assisted Personalized Assignments (CAPA)9), to coordinate the lectures and laboratories as well as use active learning methods in the lectures based on laboratory activities.10

In addition to supporting the primary course learning objectives, the secondary goals for the laboratories include design, error analysis, teamwork, and the value of being careful in one's work and observations. Within this integrated context, the following general goals were used to guide the laboratory subject matter and activities. Where appropriate, each laboratory will:

1. use familiar (e.g. mechanics) concepts to illustrate the fundamental electromagnetic concept under study in the lectures,

2. involve measurements with errors propagated to the final results,

3. illustrate applications of the fundamental concepts to science and technology,

4. illuminate the electromagnetic properties of matter,

5. include elements of design activities,

6. include teamwork and other social interactions (peer instruction).

7. provide an authentic assessment of the student learning, and

8. include elements of design activities.

The central design subject of this paper is in fact one component embedded in a much larger integrated curriculum, course, and laboratory. We are careful to make the distinction between an element of design (a closed and finite activity) and the full design process which is open-ended.

It is important to note that the burden of pedagogic integration works both ways; not only are the laboratories designed to support the lessons of the lectures, but the lectures (and examinations) need to support the laboratory-related learning objectives as well. At CSM the lectures (and the web-based homework assignments) preview and advertise the laboratory activities and make use of laboratory topics as analysis examples. The examinations include literacy ("construct an understanding") and laboratory questions (e.g. error analysis) as well. Only in this way is the laboratory fully valued by the students.

III. Theory meets reality: Delivery Mode and Resource Constraints

In the fall of 2001 a new classroom building was commissioned in which PH100, the introductory mechanics course, enjoys a dedicated technology-capable facility. However, for the foreseeable future PH200, the introductory electromagnetism course, will be delivered in the main physics building, Meyer Hall, which was designed in 1964 specifically for the lecture-lab-recitation format and has not undergone significant renovation since. This fact and the limitations of capital and staffing resources necessitated retaining for the present the traditional lecture/recitation/laboratory mode, a circumstance familiar to hundreds of physics departments nationwide.

However, we do not consider the absence of an IT-integrated laboratory for PH200 to be a major impediment. Students entering PH100 bring a mechanical intuition that is readily exploited using sensors and computers to bridge the familiar phenomena of motion with their mathematical and graphical representations. The use of a "black box" to bridge the phenomenon and its representation creates no conceptual hurdles when dealing with the familiar. This contrasts sharply with PH200 where student intuition about electromagnetic fields and concepts is largely absent. This explains in part why electromagnetism is notoriously difficult for beginning engineering students to master - they bring little or no prior understanding. In Vygotskian terms there is little upon which to build a "zone of proximal development" - an area of cognitive performance achievable with assistance. Perhaps making a virtue of a necessity, we believed it important therefore to use the laboratory as an opportunity to ground the students' introduction to electromagnetic concepts directly and as firmly as possible in the familiar mechanics concepts of force and energy. We have eschewed the use of black-box interfacing equipment, and computers were used only to assist in numerical analysis of the data using a spreadsheet. For example, the electric field concept is reinforced through direct observation of the force between two objects as in Laboratory I (Measuring Charge) and in Laboratory II (The Capacitor Plate Balance). The energy foundations of the electric potential are reinforced in Laboratory III (The Energy of a Capacitor) in which electrical energy is converted to heat. Following the ZAP! example, where ever possible the students interact with the phenomena directly and intimately. They see electric or magnetic forces move objects, test their circuits by touching the (low current) high voltage output, see and hear the electric discharge as air is broken down, search for a hidden object with a metal detector, and calibrate a thermometer by placing the thermistor element in their mouths.

At CSM, due to historical space limitations, the PH100 and PH200 laboratories alternated weeks. Thus, there are 7 PH200 laboratories in a 15 week semester. In the non-laboratory week the students participate in a 2-hour problem-solving recitation. The move of PH100 allows the opportunity to further revise the PH200 delivery mode to include studio, integrated laboratory/recitation, formats; however, the present laboratory space layout - in four small 9-station rooms - is not well suited to such a delivery mode without unacceptable increases in instructional staffing. Thus, the plan is to continue with the alternate week mode for now which, while not ideal, is effective and manageable within existing resources.

Each laboratory station is equipped with a computer, a storage bin (with tools, wire, components, and miscellaneous parts), a multimeter, a low voltage power supply, an oscilloscope, and a function generator. This is supplemented for each lab with the necessary specialized equipment (such as a knife-edge balance) and custom circuit boards. The total cost is about $4300 plus 30 hours of technical labor per station for a total cost of about $155k for 36 stations. An NSF-CCLI grant supported part of the costs for full implementation.

The students in the laboratory are grouped in teams of three with specific roles - the principal experimenter (team leader and chief ``doer''), the recorder (handles all lab manual entries), and the computer (handles all computer data entry and spreadsheet calculations). The roles are rotated each lab, but we find that students tend to fall into specific roles despite our best efforts otherwise. As part of the preparation for the lab, each student is required to read about the experiment in the lab manual and answer a few reading and analysis questions on an answer sheet which is their ``ticket'' to the lab. This exercise is important to the integration of the lecture topics with the laboratory's design activity since the analysis is based on current lecture topics. We make extensive use of spreadsheets to perform the numerical calculations and error analysis for the labs. Although many students have some experience with spreadsheets, they are not expected to have this skill at the start; so the first lab devotes time to teaching basic spreadsheet skills. For each lab we provide a spreadsheet template which varies from almost completely preprogrammed in the first lab to virtually empty by the last lab. To save time the lab manual has a workbook section that is filled out by the recorder and turned in at the conclusion of the lab along with a printout of the team's spreadsheet. The laboratories are team graded. We have experimented with assigning teams using PH100 grades, forming teams with high, middle, and low achieving students, but we have not been able to measure any effect from this.

IV. Incorporation of Design Elements

An important secondary learning objective of PH200 is to introduce the students to engineering design experiences relating to electromagnetism. ABET defines "design" as the creative application of science and mathematics to the solution of practical problems1. Elements of design include the establishment of objectives and criteria, synthesis, analysis, construction, testing, and evaluation. A proper design activity is open-ended, iterative, and constrained by physical, financial, social, and/or legal conditions. While a full design experience is not feasible in a closed 3-hour lab, elements of design activities can be incorporated into the procedures. We align the content learning objectives with design experiences by requiring the students to use the fundamental physics topic under study in the lecture portion to guide the design and fabrication of critical components for the specific laboratory. Table I lists the seven experiments along with the physics principles and concepts illustrated, experimental objectives and design activities. Many of these experiments were adapted from ZAP!, a stand-alone introductory electronics lab for engineers created by J. Pine, J. King, Phillip Morrison, and Phylis Morrison and used at Cal Tech and MIT6.

In the ZAP! approach the students construct virtually all of the equipment and circuits for each lab. In particular, the students are required to solder all the required circuitry. While intensively hands-on, this time-consuming activity is not well aligned with other course learning objectives required in an integrated approach. A given ZAP! experiment can take up to 10 hours to complete with the work done outside of a laboratory, usually in the student's dormitory room. The design and fabrication activities are well-aligned with ABET design criteria, but the nontraditional delivery mode was not acceptable for our course. The principal adaptation was to create special circuit boards where those components not related to the physics principles under study were prefabricated, saving time on these secondary activities. The students installed, designed, or fabricated only those few components that directly reinforced the physics lessons. This saving in fabrication time no doubt reduced the eventual technical skill level of the students, yet with a limited and fixed time budget, we felt this a reasonable and necessary compromise. Due to space limitations we discuss in some depth just three of the adapted laboratories to illustrate how elements of design aligned with course learning objectives are incorporated into the activities. Detailed technical descriptions of the experiments will be presented elsewhere.

Laboratory 3 (The Energy Stored in a Capacitor) is a combination of the ZAP! Experiment 6, "The Thermistor and the Bridge" and Experiment 7, "The Capacitor". It occurs in the sixth week when Ohm's Law and DC circuits are covered in the lectures. Capacitors and energy storage were covered previously. The basic idea is to use a metered bridge circuit with a themistor as one of the resistor elements to measure temperature, a familiar use of the bridge circuit. The device is calibrated at room temperature and at body temperature (obtained by placing the thermistor -covered with transparent tape- in one's mouth). The energy of a charged capacitor is measured by discharging it through the thermistor and quickly measuring its temperature change which, when multiplied by the thermistor's heat capacity, determines the energy. To fit into a standard 3-hour laboratory format a custom circuit board was created with the meter, potentiometer, and double-pole double-throw switch prewired as shown in Figure 1. Since the electromagnetic lessons under study are Ohm's Law, electrical energy, and the effect of temperature on electrical conductivity, the students construct or connect those portions of the circuit dealing with those lessons: the thermistor side of the bridge circuit, the capacitor, the batteries, and power supply. The final circuit is virtually identical to that of ZAP!. The students construct and calibrate their instrument and then use it to determine the value of an unknown capacitor by measuring the energy it stores at a fixed voltage.

Laboratory 4 (The Magnetic Force Balance) is also an adaptation of a ZAP! experiment in which the students construct a balance using coat hanger wire, an activity requiring considerable time but not related to the course learning objectives. The resulting balance is awkward to use and not particularly accurate. This laboratory occurs in week eight after the students have learned about magnetic forces and during the Biot-Savart Law segment. Our adaptation is to provide a custom knife-edge balance, shown in Figure 2, which is easy to use and quite sensitive. This balance has the novel feature of having the two knife-edges electrically isolated; so current can pass to beam through the knife-edge contacts. This avoids the need of having external wires connecting to the coil on the balance beam that can introduce unwanted torque. In their pre-laboratory assignment using lecture-based concepts the students use the Biot-Savart and magnetic force laws to calculate the number of turns needed to produce a given force constrained by a current limitation and the balance sensitivity. During the laboratory, the students construct and install their coils, and then calibrate the balance using a fixed mass. The assessment for this laboratory has the students determine an unknown mass using their magnetic balance.

Laboratory 5, The Metal Detector, is adapted from the ZAP! experiment on induction during which the students measure the mutual induction of two overlapping coils. In our adaptation we extend the induction concept to application by having the students construct a metal detector which adds greater relevance to their work in addition to a design activity. This laboratory occurs in week ten after the students have studied the Biot-Savart Law and are concurrently studying Faraday's Law. As part of the pre-laboratory assignment, the students use the Biot-Savart and Faraday Laws to determine the number of turns needed for the field and pick-up coils of their metal detectors to meet a specified output voltage criterion subject to realistic size constraints. During the laboratory, they construct and test the coils, recalculating and redoing their work if necessary. An additional secondary goal of the laboratories is to introduce technological applications of electromagnetic concepts to maintain interest and provide additional relevance. Following the ZAP! example, in this laboratory the students are introduced to an operational amplifier assembling the feedback portion of an amplifier circuit using a simple voltage divider illustrating a technological application of Ohm's Law. Those circuit components and connections not related to the electromagnetic lessons, such as the operational amplifier connections and the rectifying circuit, are prefabricated. Figure 3 shows the custom circuit board and the metal detector layout. The students connect the field coil to a function generator (related to the Biot-Savart Law), install the feedback potentiometer (related to Ohm's Law application), and attach the metal detector's pick up coil to the amplifier input (related to Faraday's Law). The prefabricated rectifying circuit provides a sensitive DC output that can be read on a digital multimeter. The principal modifications from the ZAP! version are the use of field and pick-up coils with different geometry to make up the metal detector probe, the use of a function generator instead of commercial 60 Hz to allow a range of frequencies, and the addition of a half-wave rectifying module for the output of the amplifier. The assessment for this laboratory requires the students to locate hidden metal samples embedded in a cardboard holder.

V. Assessment

There are principally two levels of assessment - that of the individual student and that of the introductory electromagnetism course. Individual student performance is measured against learning objective criteria using examinations, quizzes, graded homework assignments, and ``authentic'' laboratory quizzes. In a closed 3-hour laboratory this is naturally limited by the specific context of the subject matter under study. We have attempted to make these assessments interesting by having the students measure something technically relevant or solve some mystery using the principles of physics as applied to their constructed apparatus. For example, in the metal detector laboratory described above the students are given a piece of cardboard with metal samples hidden within. The students are challenged to locate the samples and identify the type of material (ferromagnetic or diamagnetic) using the metal detectors they have made. This requires some skill in carefully observing the response of their metal detector and interpreting what is observed. Based on observations and student feedback, student attitudes about these challenges are very positive. Nearly all (>90%) of the teams are able to pass these assessments. Table II lists the authentic assessments used for each of the seven experiments.

The introductory electromagnetism course is evaluated horizontally (each term) using the nationally-normalized Concept Survey in Electricity and Magnetism (CSEM)11 and a set of examination questions targeted to address the literacy learning objectives discussed previously. The CSEM was developed to assess students' abilities to understand and use fundamental concepts in electricity and magnetism. The CSEM is given as a pretest and then as a posttest to measure student gains. The CSEM is not perfectly aligned with the PH200 curriculum which includes a module on optics not covered on the CSEM. Nevertheless, the survey is a useful tool in assessing the bulk of the fundamental concepts embodied in the course learning objectives. The CSEM was given to 492 students over three terms from spring 2001 through spring 2002. The average scores were 32.0% (pre) and 52.5% (post) which compares to the national averages of 31% and 47%, respectively (calculus-based). Since this instrument does not assess laboratory or design objectives, no direct conclusions regarding the role of the laboratories can be gleaned from these data. We cannot at this stage determine if the modest improvement in conceptual understanding over national averages is related to the laboratory reforms. In the absence of a nationally-normalized instrument, we have also included targeted laboratory and literacy questions in our examinations where students are asked to use electromagnetic principles and concepts to achieve some desired result or explain some common phenomenon. Example questions include: "What capacitance would be needed to keep a computer (with specified properties) running for 5 minutes after a power outage?", or, "Why do the car lights dim when the car is started?" Although not normalized nationally, these targeted questions provide useful information on the effectiveness of the laboratories as an integrated component of the course. In the four semesters the revised laboratories have been offered in conjunction with lectures delivered by six different professors, a majority of students, 58% (48%-67%), successfully answered the questions on recognizing the electromagnetic principles involved in novel situations or in the design of a component.

The course is also evaluated longitudinally through senior interviews. The first set of interviews involving graduating seniors who went through the first offering of new course was completed this year. The students were not prompted to address the PH200 course or laboratory specifically in order to gauge how memorable the experience was. Of the 28 students interviewed, most (65%) had no specific comment about the PH200 laboratory, but the remainder reported a positive experience with the laboratory ("fun", "interesting", "good introduction", etc.), a major improvement over previous year interviews where the introductory laboratory was only mentioned in negative contexts ("boring", "useless", "trivial", etc.). We have additional anecdotal evidence of improved learning as well. One senior mechanical engineering student told us that when asked in a job interview to describe something technical, she described the metal detector experiment and was offered the job as a result of her answer. A metallurgical engineering senior described his delight at understanding the basics of x-ray diffraction in one of his senior metallurgy courses due to his earlier experience in the PH200 laboratory.

VI. Summary

As part of a campus-wide curriculum reform coincident with an ABET general review, the CSM Physics Department reformed its introductory physics sequence to better respect the psychological principles of learner-based education. One of the secondary goals was to include design experiences coordinated with the lectures to reinforce the course learning objectives. We reviewed the new course and its integrated laboratory, starting with the pedagogic foundations, course design goals, learning objectives, laboratory design goals, and the various activities through which the objectives are met and assessed. Of particular interest were the new experiments that are integrated into the course and include significant design experiences within a closed 3-hour laboratory. For many of these experiments this was achieved by adapting design-rich experiments from the Cal Tech/MIT ZAP! program through the prefabrication of nonessential components while requiring the students to design and construct those components directly related to the physics topic under study. Details of these adaptations will be presented elsewhere. The new laboratory costs about $4,300 and requires some 30 hours of technician time per station. Preliminary longitudinal interview assessments show significant improvement in student attitudes. The new course shows modest improvement in CSEM scores over the national average although the role the new laboratories play in this is not known. In their present form these laboratories can be readily adopted by physics departments supporting engineering programs and could increase support for these programs to retain physics department-delivered introductory physics in their curricula.


The author thanks J. Pine for valuable discussions about the ZAP! program and for providing the ZAP! lab kit and supporting materials. Todd Ruskell, Bruce Meeves, Orlen Wolf, Kari Kunkel, and the students of the fall 1999 pilot course have provided helpful comments and suggestions. We acknowledge and thank Grover Coors for the design of the knife-edge balance. The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the CSM Center for Engineering Education, the CSM Student Technology Fee program and the National Science Foundation CCLI program.


1 "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs", Engineering Accreditation Commission, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., 1999;




5 J. G. King, P. Morrison, and Ph. Morrison, ``ZAP! Elementary Experiments in Electricity and Magnetism: a Progress Report", Am. J. Phys. 60, 973 (1992); J. Pine, J. King, P. Morrison, and Ph. Morrison, ZAP!, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, Mass., 1996 (see also

6 T. E. Furtak and T. R. Ohno, ``Installing Studio Physics'', Phys. Teach., Vol. 39, 534-538 (2001).

7 Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, How People Learn - Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, eds. John D. Bransford, Ann. L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000.

8 Lev S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. (1978).


10 E. Mazur, Peer Instruction, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.; R. R. Hake, ``Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses'', Am. J. Phys. 66, 64-74 (1998).

11 D. P. Maloney, T. L. O'Kuma, C. J. Hieggelke, and A. Van Heuvelen, ``Surveying students' conceptual knowledge of electricity and magnetism'', Am. J. Phys., 69, S12-S23 (2001).

12 H. Meiners, PASCO accessory unit WA-9315.


Table I: Physics principles, learning objectives and design activities for each laboratory.


Physics Principles and Concepts

Experimental Objectives

Design Activity


Measuring Charge

Coulomb's law, Reimann sum

Error analysis, spreadsheet use, teamwork

Calibrate an electroscope to measure charge


Capacitor Plate Balance

Electric potential, relation to electric field

Error analysis, value of being careful, teamwork

Design/fabricate balance component


Energy Stored in a Capacitor

Ohm's law, equivalence of electrical and heat energy, nonohmic materials

Error analysis, circuit skills, teamwork

Calibrate an electro-thermometer


Magnetic Force Balance

Biot-Savart and magnetic force laws

Error analysis, circuit skills, teamwork

Design/fabricate magnetic coils


Metal Detector

Biot-Savart and Faraday laws, magnetic properties of materials

Value of careful observation, circuit skills, use of oscilloscope, op-amps, teamwork

Design/fabricate metal detector components


Breakdown Electric Field of Air

Faraday's law, Lenz's law, breakdown of a dielectric, atomic model

Value of careful observation, circuit skills, teamwork

Model feasibility study for the experiment, design/fabricate a transformer


Bragg Diffraction with Microwaves12

Interference properties of waves, electric dipole detection of radiation, Bragg diffraction and the structure of crystals

Value of careful observation, leadership and teamwork

Design and implement experimental procedures

Table II: Authentic assessments for each laboratory.




Measuring Charge with Coulomb's Law

Lab quiz: Find the charge on an unknown sample sphere


Capacitor Plate Balance

Lab quiz: Use the capacitor plate balance as a voltmeter


Energy Stored in a Capacitor

Lab quiz: Find the capacitance of an unknown capacitor


Magnetic Force Balance

Lab quiz: Find an unknown mass


Metal Detector

Lab quiz: Find the location and composition of hidden metal samples


Breakdown Electric Field of Air

Lab quiz: Measure the breakdown electric field of air


Bragg Diffraction with Microwaves12

Lab quiz: Measure the lattice spacing of an unknown ``crystal'' sample


Figure 1. Set up for Laboratory 3, ``Energy Stored in a Capacitor''. The custom circuit board has the bridging meter and double-pole switch prewired. The students wire the thermistor part of the bridge and the capacitor discharge circuits. The assessment for this laboratory requires the students to use their constructed and calibrated thermometer bridge circuit to measure the capacitance of an unknown capacitor based on the energy it stores at a fixed voltage.

Figure 2. Set up Laboratory 4, ``The Magnetic Balance''. The magnetic coils are between the aluminum plates on the left end of the plastic balance arm. The two knife-edge pivots are electrically isolated which allows current to be passed to the coil on the upper plate wires that could produce additional torque. The balance also provides an example of eddy currents with magnetic damping on the right end of the balance arm. The assessment for this laboratory requires the students to measure an unknown mass by measuring the current needed to provide the balancing magnetic force.

Figure 3. Set up for the Laboratory 5, ``The Metal Detector''. The custom circuit board has the operational amplifier with power supply and rectifying output circuit prewired. The students design, construct, install, and test the field and pick-up coils and install the feedback circuit components. The assessment for this laboratory requires the students to use their metal detector to locate hidden metal samples.