Bringing physics to life: new first-year labs, a student experience

Imperial undergraduates, Anubha Bal and Warren Smith, recently took a little time out from their studies to star in a short video, joining staff members to share thoughts on the new first year labs in the Department of Physics.

In this post, they reflect in more detail on how the new facilities have impacted their learning and experience of experimental physics, and also their career aspirations.

By Anubha Bal and Warren Smith

This past year, we and the rest of our cohort of first-year physicists had the fortune to be the first students to experience the newly refurbished labs in Blackett. Here, we share our experience of this and how it has shaped us and our perspective on experimental physics.

Immeasurably useful

Labs are a crucial part of learning physics as an undergraduate. Aside from learning the practical skills directly required for a career in experimental physics, lab sessions provide the opportunity to develop several key skills that can be transferred to any workplace.

Planning our own experiments, for example, teaches us both problem solving from figuring out how to attain the goals set in the lab manuals, and also independent time-management, as we need to design the most efficient method in order to be able to take adequate measurements to obtain accurate results within the limited time. Additionally, the analysis of the data from experiments provided the chance to apply computing techniques learnt from the computing course in a practical setting. For many of us, this was our first time coding, and so this activity was immeasurably useful in developing vital coding skills for our degree; even for those who had coded before, this was an opportunity to hone their efficiency.

Team spirit

One essential skill that lab sessions nurture is teamwork and collaboration. Being in small groups of two meant that, while there was space to grow independently, both people had to participate and work efficiently together if the experiment was to be completed to an acceptable standard in the allotted time. This demanded good communication skills within a group. However, having three other groups in your vicinity conducting the same experiment, with only a limited number of demonstrators to help, encourages communication between groups to solve more challenging problems collectively, and, perhaps more importantly, to compare results; these are invaluable skills not only in a research setting, but in any field of work.

Bringing physics to life

Furthermore, the lab sessions are a very effective way to supplement the theoretical part of the course. Not only do they necessitate the application of the mathematics taught in the course to formulate the theoretical models underlying the experiments and their analysis, they also enliven the content that we have learnt, and even include content beyond the scope of the course. This encourages wider reading in order to fully understand the experiment; it both aids in the development of independent learning, but also makes the course significantly more engaging.

Actively engaging by design

It is clear that the new labs were designed with these targeted skills in mind. Firstly, they’re very well-equipped, with each group having access to their own oscilloscope, optical workbench, laser, lenses, microphones and cameras, computers and more, as required for each experiment. This means that we are not simply passively learning through watching demonstrations; we are actively engaging with the physics.

Furthermore, the quality of the equipment facilitates more accurate results than we could ever obtain at school, giving a taster of being a real physicist, and the opportunity for more ambitious and memorable experiments. The diffraction experiment, for example, involved us using the laser beam with a lens and diffraction grating set-up to produce diffraction patterns for various slits. This tied in perfectly with the Fourier Analysis and Fourier Optics theoretical courses, and it was very satisfying to finally have equipment precise enough to produce results that matched the theoretical predictions almost perfectly.

Even when it came to the more complicated requirements of the Summer Projects at the end of the year, which were open-ended group projects in which we could design virtually any experiment that we could do within the time and money constraints, the labs were able to provide almost every piece of equipment that we needed. Between our two groups, we used 3-D printers, laser cutters, scroll saws, time gates, magnets, construction materials, computer simulation software – the lab or the university provided all of them. Additionally, the lab technicians are highly skilled and friendly, helping with the more difficult construction and engineering challenges during the Summer Project, as well as offering advice on how to set up the experiment to those that asked for it.

Spatially, the labs are designed to foster collaboration and productivity. The wide, open, main walkways allow easy passage between groups for collaboration, or for a demonstrator to come to help. On the contrary, the actual work benches are fitted with shelf-space above the tables, which means that when sitting down, it is secluded enough that you can work independently and without visual distraction. This combination allows for a more productive and enjoyable environment.

Learning what it takes to be  an experimental physicist

Overall, the labs this year not only served as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course, they have provided us with the freedom and agency to design and carry out our own experiments in a more professional environment than previously experienced by most. Having overcome the numerous challenges, from correctly handling a lab book and writing lab reports to trying to get the summer projects to physically work, we have come to better understand what it would take to be an experimental physicist, and I am sure that many peoples’ career trajectories may have slightly veered in this direction after our first experience of proper labs. However, even if not, we have all grown individually as a result of these sessions, and have gained a greater confidence that we can bring into the labs next year.

Find out more

Find out more about undergraduate study in the Department of Physics.

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