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Physics faculty, teaching assistants bring
hands-on lab to students online

Written by Heather Coit

When Physics senior lecturer Eugene Colla begins remotely teaching his Modern Experimental Physics course in June, he’ll be ready. Colla and his co-instructor, Prof. Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, collaborated with physics teaching lab specialist, Jack Boparai, and a team of teaching assistants to successfully convert the course to virtual instruction midway through spring semester in response to COVID-19.

Online conversion was no small feat for Colla, who has taught Physics 403 since 2004 and has watched the class size more than double in that time. The spring semester saw 28 students, including three exchange students from the United Kingdom.

“He’s built it up to be one of the most popular lab courses in the Physics Department,” Lorenz said. “Students want to take this course because it provides hands-on research experience in a variety of fields ranging from condensed matter physics; to atomic, molecular and optical physics; to nuclear physics.”

 

 

Lab instruction covers the fifth floor of the Engineering Sciences Building when the course is in session during fall, spring, and summer semesters. Normally, students pair up for four hours at a time, twice a week to work on each experiment for six days; as several graduate teaching assistants lead experiments and assist the professors.

 

"There was a plan to keep this laboratory in the same shape as it was before. I think we did that very successfully with Gina."

Eugene Colla, Senior Lecturer, Physics

 

Colla credited Lorenz with tackling the challenge of moving the advanced course online by setting up Zoom so students could be as involved as possible with the experiments. Preparations allowed for TAs to perform the experiments in real time while interacting with students, who made key decisions on what to do next; the students remotely controlled some of the lab equipment and computers that gave them data from the equipment. TAs recorded video of important steps and provided documents for students to study asynchronously as needed.

 

The Physics 403 advanced course, taught during the Spring 2020 semester by Eugene Colla, pictured here, senior lecturer, and Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, associate professor, was successfully converted to remote instruction from the fifth floor of the Engineering Sciences Building (ESB) in Urbana.
Eugene Colla, a Physics senior lecturer pictured above, successfully converted his Physics 403 lab to remote instruction with help from co-instructor,  Prof. Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, and a team of teaching assistants. (photo by Brian DeMarco/Physics)

 

The large space between lab set-ups in ESB allowed for everyone involved to follow social- distancing requirements. Much to Colla’s relief, he was able to instruct his international students to control an experiment in real time, even when it meant students finished lab near midnight because of different time zones. Supporting students was important to Colla because “they learn skills that are useful in the next steps of their life and education.”  

For Lorenz, online support would not have been possible without the help of their TAs, including Shubhang Goswami (B.S.’17, Physics) and Albur Hassan (B.S. ’18, Physics).

“The TAs deserve a lot of thanks and credit for making this remote instruction successful,” Lorenz said.

Goswami and Hassan faced a variety of challenges as they had to simultaneously instruct students and perform experiments solo; all while keeping their audience engaged for several hours via Zoom.

“I couldn't make the assumption that students have access to good internet and a learning- friendly space free of distractions for four-hours long,” Goswami said. “Luckily, for the past year or so, I had been making logs for future TAs while I taught. I created a kind of recipe book for the entire experiment with detailed pictures.”

Goswami created a video recording of each step in the master document he made from his original template, making the content available to students so they could better understand instructions.

Hassan struggled at first to gauge which students needed additional help during lab experiments, which was easier to spot before remote learning.

“With in-person instruction, the students usually let me know when they are stuck on some step, and it’s easier for me to see what is causing the difficulty,” Hassan said.  

Hassan found that holding more frequent discussions, along with more thorough experimental discussions, solved many of these issues.

 

The Physics 403 advanced course, taught during the Spring 2020 semester by Eugene Colla, pictured here, senior lecturer, and Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, associate professor, was successfully converted to remote instruction from the fifth floor of the Engineering Sciences Building (ESB) in Urbana.
Albur Hassan (B.S. '18, Physics), a teaching assistant for Physics 403, engaged with students via Zoom and conducted lab experiments for them from the fifth floor of the Engineering Sciences Building in Urbana.  (photo by Brian DeMarco/Physics)

 

Both TAs were resourceful with lab equipment to keep their students engaged with them.

For example, the TAs used a webcam with an extension cord to record experiments from key locations, including the top of a door to increase visibility of an entire room. The rooms were also set up so students could control the lab computer mouse as they collected data in real time.

Haoran Lin (B.S. ’21, Physics and Math) was one of the students who benefited from the faculty’s extra planning and adjusted more quickly to the online transition as a result. When access to certain software programs was granted to students, it allowed Lin to become more proficient with some of the software. 

 

Haoran Lin (B.S. '21, Physics and Math), a Chinese student who remained in his off-campus apartment during spring semester, viewed experiments via Zoom at his work set-up from home.
Haoran Lin (B.S. '21, Physics and Math) finished the spring semester from his off-campus apartment, where he continued his Physics 403 studies and became more proficient in learning software programs. (photo provided by Haoran Lin)

 

“In the last lab section, our professors and TAs tried to focus more on data analysis that we could perform remotely,” Lin said. “Instead of taking data from the lab’s detector, we focused on using ROOT, a CERN software, to plot graphs and fit lifetimes. Although we lost hands-on experience on the equipment, we became more experienced in software programs like ROOT.”

Lin, who is prepared to take an online math course this summer, said this past semester could one day help him adapt to the unexpected when he furthers his studies in Condensed Matter Experiment.

“If something like this happens again, maybe it will help us to better communicate,” Lin said, who expressed gratitude toward the supportive Physics team.

“All the TAs were really helpful, and I appreciate their efforts,” Lin said. “They made this whole online experience easier and less stressful.”

As Hassan brings his remote teaching experience with him to Physics 403 this summer, when he’ll again work as a TA, Goswami continues working toward his Ph.D preliminary exam with a focus on research.

 

"I will continuously be thinking of how I can have online, asynchronous teaching, even when things go back to normal. This will benefit our community, and in particular people with disabilities and special needs, who have been asking for such accommodations."

Shubhang Goswami (B.S.’17, Physics)

 

Colla and Lorenz would like to thank Laura Clower, chief of staff in the Office of the President of the University of Illinois System, for making protective masks for the team.

They would also like to thank the rest of the PHYS403 TAs who made the remote instruction successful: Gabriel Petrica, Daniel MacLean, Lucas Slattery, Andrew Conrad, Samantha Isaac, Michelle Victora, and Christopher Zeitler.

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