NSF-CCLI Grant #DUE-0126849

Collaborative Investigation of Chaos, Exotic Atoms, and Electron Optics in the Advanced Physics Laboratory

Principal Investigator: Marty Johnston

Award Dates: 2002-2005

Award Amount: $83,434

In this project, the investigator is building an advanced physics lab course into an equipment-intensive course where students learn and develop hands-on skills in the areas of computer interfacing, modular instrumentation, and vacuum techniques while they learn to work collaboratively, as they would in a technical job environment. Recent physics education research has shown the success of the collaborative approach in teaching introductory physics. This project supports the full-scale implementation of teaching and learning advanced experimental techniques in a collaborative environment by adapting the ideas developed by P. Heller and M. Hollabaugh ("Teaching Problem Solving Through Cooperative Grouping. Part 2: Designing Problems and Structuring Groups," Am. J. Phys. 60, 637-644 [1992]) and applying them to an upper-division laboratory course. Specifically, "context-rich" problems are being developed and student groups are being managed to foster problem solving skills in the laboratory. The new advanced physics lab course is structured around three experimental problems: detecting mechanical chaos, measuring the lifetime of an exotic atom, and designing and characterizing a simple, low-energy electron gun. The experiments are adapted from F. Moon's book on chaos, Chaotic and Fractal Dynamics (Wiley, 1992, pp. 451-456); M. Yuly's paper on positronium decay, "Positronium in the Undergraduate Laboratory," Am. J. Phys. 67, 880-884 (1999); and the discussion of vacuum techniques and electron optics in Building Scientific Apparatus, 2nd ed., by J. Moore, C. Davis, and M. Coplan (Perseus Books, 1991, pp. 75-118 and 305-344). The problems were chosen because of the instrumentation they involve and the skills students can learn from them. By working on the same problem and discussing the experimental techniques presented in a closely coordinated lecture, students develop both individual skills and the ability to work in a group. The collaborative model has been tested with a mechanical chaos experiment, with excellent results, particularly in terms of increased student readiness for independent research projects. The project is being evaluated by students, both formatively over the course of the project and longitudinally as they progress in the major; by faculty, both internally and externally; and by presenting for review and comment a detailed instructor's manual, supporting Web site, and articles in journals such as the American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher.