Courtesy of Stephen Irons

Over the summer, physics senior lecturer Sidney Cahn purchased hundreds of pegboards from Home Depots across Connecticut to send lab supplies to remote students enrolled in his introductory physics lab course.

As Yale begins its fall semester almost entirely online, natural science labs that require in-person data collection have had to reimagine their lab components. For their part, “General Physics Laboratory,” PHYS 165L, and “Modern Physical Measurement,” PHYS 205L, are shipping materials to remote students. Both classes will be taught completely online, according to the instructors. The course instructors cited different reasons for holding the courses remotely — including concerns of the University cancelling in-person classes as well as the difficulties of social distancing in a lab. 

“The [kits] will allow all of the students to have the same materials. No one will be privileged over anyone else as far as what it is that Yale is providing them to help expose them to an actual physics lab,” said Cahn of the materials he will send to students for PHYS 165L.

The 165L kits — named “sindeYkits” as a play on Cahn’s first name, Sidney, and the word “syndicate” — include wood, metal, plastic, and strings for experimental setups. Cahn said he will mail the equipment in two installments to students enrolled remotely. He will also drop off kits at residential colleges or apartments for students in the New Haven area.

“I, as a student, would much prefer to do the [experiments] myself, even if it was with inferior materials. But the materials we are providing are not inferior,” said Cahn of his decision to mail and deliver kits. 

Director of Instructional Labs for the Physics Department Stephen Irons said that for his course, 205L — which is led by associate physics and astronomy professor Reina Maruyama — the instructors will mail a data collection device called iOLab to students. 

The device includes 23 different sensors and can wire data to a laptop. 

“There will be a strong emphasis on experimental design and how to best collect the data,” Irons said. He added that PHYS 205L will also teach students how to collect and analyze data in Python. 

Professor of physics and applied physics Sean Barrett said that when he taught 165L and 166L during Yale Summer Session, the main demonstration videos did not fully capture the lab experience. 

“In particular, what we identified as the things that were missing were students didn’t have the chance to make mistakes and get confused in the lab by putting things together the wrong way,” Barrett explained. “That’s always a great learning experience, to see that when you hook things up in the wrong way, it doesn’t work.”

The solution the instructors applied at the time was uploading purposely flawed videos for students to analyze. With the kits, learning from mistakes is now built in.

Emma Castiglia GRD ’22, who was a teaching fellow of PHYS 165L in 2017 and during this past summer session, said while she is hopeful the kits will work, she also has her doubts. 

“The problem is, I think it’s going to be near impossible to debug 18 different setups via a camera,” Castiglia said, referencing the 18 students in each section. “It’s hard enough going around in a lab where I can actually touch their setup and try to figure out what’s wrong with it,” Castiglia added. 

Still, Cahn stated that like many scientists before, he and the students will have to adapt to unforeseen complications with the materials at hand.

“I think it should be a fun class,” said pre-med student Xinyu Chen ’23, who is taking PHYS 165L from her home in California. “I thought it was very nice of them to organize a kit so that we can actually do the experiments.”

Barrett said he hoped these new techniques could improve the learning experience for future classes, whether taught remotely or in-person. For example, he said that students may need to confront problems on their own this semester, which would encourage them to think critically about how to troubleshoot experiments. 

“I hope the students enjoy the course as much as I have enjoyed preparing it,” Cahn said, adding that he was grateful to Barrett and Physics Department Chair Karsten Heeger for their support and permission to pursue this new method of teaching. 

PHYS 165L is anticipating a 20 percent increase in enrollment this fall as compared to previous semesters, according to Cahn.

Giovanna Truong | giovanna.truong@yale.edu