The Scientific Method: The World As Your Lab - Physics

Alexandra Terrana
July 19, 2021

Physics Adventure: The World and Your Body as a Lab

Science is the process of learning how the world works. Students come to class to learn about the world, but the world in the classroom often does not correspond to the world where they live their lives. Bridging the divide between these two worlds can be difficult and requires that students apply the same skills and thinking from the classroom to where they live.

Minerva’s mission to provide our students with practical and transferable knowledge is enabled by a dedicated effort to ensure students have opportunities to apply the concepts they are learning in the classroom to the world around them and to themselves. This is especially important in the Natural Sciences in which theoretical knowledge should be paired with hands-on experimentation and observation so that students can explore the full scope of the scientific method. At many traditional institutions, this is typically facilitated through laboratory courses. While these lab courses have the potential to offer valuable learning experiences, they tend to emphasize procedural information and skills, rather than engaging students in inquiry-based hypothesis development, experimental design, and analysis. At Minerva, rather than simulate real-world phenomena in a lab, students make a lab out of the real world.

Every course at Minerva has a “location-based” assignment, meaning that it includes certain elements that require students to go out and interact with their city of residence. This series will showcase examples of such assignments across different disciplines within the Natural Sciences, including physics, chemistry, and environmental sciences.  

The assignments presented in this series can serve as examples to inspire educators to incorporate experiential learning in their Natural Science courses. All examples share a few common elements:

  • An emphasis on real-world, hands-on, project-based learning. Students should have opportunities to make connections between the course content and the world around them.
  • An emphasis on defining the learning outcomes. Assignments at Minerva are always designed around granular learning outcomes that relate directly to the learning outcomes of the course.
  • An emphasis on the analysis. Getting the “right answers” isn’t the goal of these assignments. Instead, the focus is on the “right explanations.” Students are prompted to justify their approaches and interpret their results in full.
  • Adaptability. Even though these are “location-based” assignments, they are not tied to a particular location -- they can be done from anywhere! Further, depending on what is asked of students in the analysis, these assignments can be delivered at various levels of complexity and sophistication, from introductory courses to senior concentration classes.

“Physics of Life” (NS110L) is an introductory physics course for Natural Science majors who are concentrating within the life sciences. It covers fundamental physics concepts with an emphasis on problem-solving techniques and life science applications. A few applications that students are exposed to include forces and torques in muscles and joints, fluid dynamics in the circulatory system, and heat regulation in living systems.

The Assignment

The location-based assignment for this course combines fundamental physics concepts, ranging from mechanics, fluids, and thermodynamics, with a memorable and adventurous experience in their location. As a bonus, this assignment requires students to get away from their screens and get some exercise. Students are instructed to take a hike or walk at a location of their choice. On their journey, their own body becomes their physics laboratory. Students discover that they can apply physics concepts from class to more than just idealized examples with blocks, springs, and pulleys - they can apply the material to themselves!

Albion Krasniqi, Minerva University's student, taking measurements on his way up to Namsan Tower in Seoul

During their hike, they must measure or estimate quantities along the way, such as distance, time, heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, and humidity. With these measurements in hand, students can compute several interesting physical quantities that span multiple units of the course.

  • Kinematics: What were the components of their displacement? What was their speed? Their velocity?
  • Dynamics, work, and energy: How much work was outputted to overcome the gravitational force? How much power was generated? What was their efficiency?
  • Thermodynamics: At what rate was their body being heated? How much sweat did they evaporate? How much heat was lost through breathing?
Minerva student Vanya Sofia Villa Soto's street view map showing vertical distance traveled to Namsan Tower in Seoul

All of these concepts were covered in the course and reinforced through in-class activities, but now, students can engage with them on a more meaningful level by applying the material to their own hiking experience. In doing so, physics concepts from the textbook are brought to life. For instance, by computing and comparing the magnitudes of the energies outputted to walk on a flat surface with the energy outputted to travel upward against gravity, students realize why they feel so out of breath and exhausted when they go up a set of stairs or a steep hill. Meanwhile, they could easily manage to walk on a flat surface for hours!

For the analysis, students are expected to provide thorough interpretation of the results. Are they reasonable? Is this useful? What are the limitations? For instance, students might calculate that they sweat a total of 1.5 L even though they didn’t feel particularly sweaty during the hike. This mismatch isn’t necessarily a failure. It should prompt students to question their assumption that all of the “non-useful” work goes to heat and consider what a more reasonable assumption might be.

Simon Andren, Minerva student, pointing to Golconda Fort in Hyderabad

How to Create Your Own Location-Based Lab

Inspired by this example, educators can consider integrating the following aspects into their assignments or course projects:

  • Invite students to step outside of the textbook and make their own measurements to address a question of interest, requiring them to contemplate the accuracy of their measurements and the assumptions of their analyses.
  • Foster personal connections with the course concepts so that students can recognize the applicability to their own lives. Their own human body can be their laboratory!
  • Provide the right level of guidance as it will determine the success of the assignment.  If left too open-ended, beginner students would struggle to arrive at meaningful results. If overly prescribed, the assignment becomes too much like following a recipe. The challenge is to find an appropriate mixture of structured exercises and exploratory tasks that allow for freedom and creativity. It may take some iteration to find the right balance for the student audience and course level that you are targeting. Further guidance can be provided by making time during class to discuss examples, similar problems, and allow students to get feedback on their progress.

By adopting the perspective that the world around you and your daily activities can serve as a physics playground, ideas for similar assignments will come to mind easily. Even standard textbook questions can serve as inspiration by asking yourself whether students could perform the required measurement or activity in their own location using readily available tools.

Alexandra Terrana, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Computational Sciences at Minerva University

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