Giving practical courses in the one-and-a-half metre society? In the Covid-19 pandemic, you have to use what you have, is the experience of physics teachers Rolf Hut, Eric Verschuur and Freek Pols.
At the end of June, Hut sent a couple of hundred packages containing sensors and electronics to first year students all over the country who had to stay home because of the coronavirus. They could then work on their end of year practical assignment: to design an experimental set up which final year secondary school physics teachers could use to demonstrate a physics phenomenon to students. It could be something like a Van De Graaff generator which teachers use to show static electricity. Or a cloud chamber that makes traces of particles, such as electrons or alpha particles, visible. A good impression of the experiments can be seen here.
Hut, Verschuur and Pols learned by trial and error. They found that very short instruction videos work best when explaining the assignments. And it appeared that a communications platform used by gamers worked best to help students and teachers communicate. The three teachers described their findings about giving online laboratory courses in the Physics Education (Teaching a hands-on course during corona lockdown: from problems to opportunities) magazine last week.
‘It was very makeshift’
While the students and teachers had to make the best of it at home last summer, workers were putting together a state of the art space for hands-on work. This so-called Makerspace opened its doors this week. In this video, Pols shows what you can expect here. Among all the equipment, we can see a milling machine, 3D printers and soldering stations.
It’s unimaginable, but before this, physics students did not have their own workshops. “We could use spaces at 3mE for the second year students,” explains Pols, “but the first year students first had to make their designs using very makeshift basic means. They could rarely work on improving their models. You need to make several test versions and make adjustments along the way if you want to get the best results. We are happy that we now have our own space.”
But in terms of timing, is it not a little odd to open a space to build things now? Pols does not think so. “We started working on this space in January, so well before we were hit by the pandemic. The Makerspace should have been finished in April, but corona caused delays. Students can sign up in advance and use the space. They can come and solder for half an hour and then make space for the next group of students.”
Next week Monday, the first students will start using the space. They are second year students who are tasked with making a measuring instrument such as a scales, sound level meter or speedometer. Now it’s fingers crossed that Covid-19 does not spoil things as sending milling machines and 3D printers to all the students will be very complicated.