NOTABLE COURSES: Experiments in the Physical Sciences

“Notable courses” is a blog series in which we will highlight some of the amazing courses offered at Quest University Canada. We talked to the tutors and students about their classes to see what the students were up to during the block. This time we talked to Court Ashbaugh about his Experiments in the Physical Sciences class.

Here is what he said:

What is the main (meta) goal of this course?

The main goal is to have students experience science learning in a way that represents a departure from what they’ve seen in high-school; they have a chance to interact with concepts on their own terms, at their own pace and to incorporate those concepts into their science understanding through direct hands-on measurements and analysis.

What concepts are explored in the course?

The main concept for the course is the first law of thermodynamics: the lab activities use closed systems where energy is conserved.  Other concepts relate to the interactions between energy and matter but the course does not intend to align itself with traditional physics or chemistry curricula – systems where concepts from both physics and chemistry are relevant are regularly used as models in the lab.

What projects do students complete in order to reach this goal?

Students work in pairs on about ten different lab activities that get them used to managing the difficulties of measurement, analysis – including evaluation of uncertainties, and the connections between concepts and phenomena.  Each of these activities is attached to written work that promote clear communication of student understanding while retaining the freedom to express that understanding in terms familiar to students at various levels of science comfort. The focus of the writing is not technical competence but clear, succinct expression of difficult concepts that are at the core of each experiment.

At the end of the course, students may design a lab project of their own to which two or three days may be allocated.  These projects give students a chance at seeing how physical science concepts might connect to areas of their personal interest.  Student projects range from evaluating the most efficient way to wash dishes to building an apparatus that compresses air bubbles acoustically until they emit light.

How does Quest’s structure of not having departments and being on the block system help create or benefit courses like this?

In traditional universities, early learning in the physical sciences is strictly categorized into either the physics or chemistry realm.  This course exists because there is no need at Quest to work exclusively within disciplinary boundaries.  As a foundation course that all students have the option of taking, the intent is not to ensure competency with a particular handful of concepts but to get students to reconsider or consider more deeply how physical science thinking might influence their educational path.

What deeper issues, beyond face value, does it address? / What can students expect to receive from completing the course (again, beyond face value)?

One of the most important meta-lessons I have seen some students experience in this course is that when presented in a new way, physical science learning is actually both appealing and empowering.  Traditional methods of science teaching that are content-oriented, that require the whole class to learn at the same rate, that require common outcomes for all students without regard to their different backgrounds, and/or that require an “expert” to carry the progression of each class, simply don’t work for all students.  This course gives some students a chance to renew their understanding of themselves as science-capable.

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