Thinking 'Inside the Box' for Physics Lab

Author: Carroll University

Published Date: 4/3/2020

Categories: Applied Physics Faculty and Staff Pioneers Persevere

Dr. Tate Wilson standing near a chalkboard
Dr. Tate Wilson records his physics lectures using a chalkboard in his basement. Interestingly, the board was savaged  years ago during the demolition of Maxon Hall in 2015. Maxon was demolished to make way for the Michael and Mary Jaharis Science Laboratories
COVID-19 has changed everyday life, from travel to grocery shopping to the way we work. And it definitely has changed how faculty is able to interact with students.
“It’s a very different experience than a regular physics class in the lab,” said Dr. Tate Wilson, senior lecturer of physics, said of online teaching.
“It was stressful thinking of what to do, but I learned about my own psychology. At first, I stewed about it, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then I contacted Mark (Blegen), who was communicating with faculty every day. I said, ‘I just don’t have any idea what to do about this,’ and I asked if he had suggestions. In five minutes, I had some perfect ideas. I just had to talk it out.”
For his Advanced Electronics Laboratory, Dr. Wilson learned to think inside the box. He ordered 13 microcontrollers online, enough for each student and one for himself. “These are simplified version of what an engineer would really use as microcontroller, and you can make any electronic device,” he said.
“Microcontrollers are like a computer that doesn’t use an operation system; it only runs one program at a time, and they’re everywhere in engineering,” Dr. Wilson said. “For instance, your microwave has one in it to figure out the programs on the keypad.”
The question was, what would the students’ microcontrollers actually control? “That’s the part they need to build,” he said. “At school we have lots of parts and equipment they can use.”
Not having access to those, Dr. Wilson also bought kits online that include parts such as a variety of sensors and resistors.

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“The kits come with tutorials on how to use the parts, and the goal is to have students build circuits. It’s what we would have done at the end of the year, to have them build a project of their own. We’ll do that, but it probably will be a little bit different.”
But the online lab seems to be working. “The students are so great. I haven’t gotten a complaint about anything from anyone. They all seem to be taking it with a spirit of adventure, saying ‘OK, let’s try this.’ They think of this as a big adventure, like going to camp or something.”


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