IOLab gets intro-physics students thinking more like physicists

The handheld IOLab device is loaded with sensors for data taking and integrates with software for data analysis. It puts a physics laboratory in the palm of students' hands and supports design-based learning.


Siv Schwink
for Illinois Physics

A new hands-on investigative learning approach has students designing their own experiments in introductory physics labs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And surveys show, they like it. Students are more invested in the lab exercises and are taking away greater satisfaction and confidence in their new ‘expert-like’ scientific research skills.

Having students design their own sound, replicable scientific experiments that uniquely deliver a sought-after answer is not generally done in traditional introductory physics labs. But this semester, about 350 students enrolled in 11 lab sections of Physics 101 were asked to do exactly that, using a remarkable new hand-held device called IOLab.

“It turns out for practical reasons, to implement an investigative-learning pedagogy with open-ended exercises in our labs, we needed this tool. I invented IOLab because it was fun. It’s luck that it’s turned out to be useful—the right tool for the job.”

Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen, Illinois Physics

IOLab is a small but powerful data-acquisition tool that supports hands-on design-based learning. The device was invented by Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen and is manufactured and distributed by MacMillan Learning

At a price point of about $100, students gain access to a magnetometer, microphone, buzzer, light intensity meter, accelerometer, gyroscope, temperature gauge, atmospheric pressure gauge, force probe, and expansion headers, plus a wheel encoder that measures position, velocity, and acceleration—all in a single device. The IOLab can measure rotation rates, forces, temperature, pressure, and voltages. It is also capable of wireless data sharing, so students can monitor the results of their experiments in real time.

Selen, a particle physicist who is also a noted expert in physics education research (PER) explains, “This new approach is allowing us to shift the focus of our introductory labs toward creativity, design, sense-making, and communication. Students are learning to tackle a question without fear. They’re collaborating, coming up with an idea, and designing a test to see if the idea might be right; then revising the idea and trying again when the results lead someplace unexpected. 

“Not incidentally, these same behaviors are precisely what makes good physicists,” Selen points out, “yet for a variety of reasons, some practical and some historical, these are often not the behaviors that we encourage in our introductory physics labs.”

Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen facilitates a Physics 101 lab during spring semester 2018
Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen facilitates a Physics 101 lab during spring semester 2018. The IOLab device he invented, being manufactured and distributed by MacMillan Learning, enables design-based investigative learning in introductory physics labs.
Students in Physics 101 collaborate to design their own experiments
Students in Physics 101 collaborate to design their own experiments. Photos by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

To accommodate the introduction of IOLab experiments, the room that hosts the Physics 101 labs was stripped of its traditional student-lab benches and stools and set up with group tables, chairs, and a cabinet full of supplies that students use for their experiments. Selen also put in a beverage station with coffee, tea, and hot cocoa, to warm up the comparatively empty space and promote the social interactions that good collaborative work requires.

A 1917 photo of the Electricity & Magnetism (E&M) Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Illinois was among the first universities in the country to teach laboratory classes in physics, starting in 1875. Stevens Institute of Technology introduced physics laboratory classes in 1871, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1873
A 1917 photo of the Electricity & Magnetism (E&M) Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Illinois was among the first universities in the country to teach laboratory classes in physics, starting in 1875. Stevens Institute of Technology introduced physics laboratory classes in 1871, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1873.

Students complete a pre-lab homework assignment before each lab, involving data collection of real-world physics using their IOLabs in their dormitory rooms. A cloud-shaped button in the app allows students to share their pre-lab data with lab partners and instructors via an integrated cloud-based repository. That way, students arrive at the lab knowing how to work the particular IOLab sensors they’ll need and what the software-generated graphs look like.

Selen stresses that, he invented the IOLab device, but not the pedagogy it’s supporting.

“You still need a good curriculum,” he asserts. “There is an important study done by Carl Wieman of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and Natasha Holmes of Cornell’s Department of Physics. They measured the impact of traditional instructional labs on the learning of introductory physics and found it didn’t contribute to students’ mastery of the course curriculum or performance on exams.

“Our own physics education research was pointing to the same truth—and student surveys showed labs were not only not contributing to mastery, they were the least valued part of our introductory curriculum.

“Eugenia Etkina of Rutgers Graduate School of Education works on physics education research—she gave a colloquium here [at Illinois Physics] several years ago and talked about what she called an investigative science learning environment, or ISLE. The pedagogy we implemented is based on her work.”

Mats Selen

Mats Selen

Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen is a particle physicist who has demonstrated tremendous dedication to evidence-based physics education research (PER) and to the development of innovative technologies to support modern pedagogies. He and his Illinois Physics PER colleagues have fundamentally changed the way physics is being taught at the U of I and beyond. Among the students at Illinois Physics, Selen is best known for making physics a lot of fun. He is the founder and faculty mentor of the Physics Van undergraduate outreach program, makes regular appearances on local station WCIA’s Morning Show as the Why’s Guy, and is co-inventor of the i>Clicker and the FlipItPhysics (smartPhysics) curriculum. He is the recipient of the 2016 Professor of the Year Award of the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Students’ lab work is graded on a scientific-abilities rubric, based on Etkina’s pedagogy. Students were assessed on (1) the ability to design a reliable experiment that tests the hypothesis; (2) the ability to make a reasonable prediction based on a hypothesis; and (3) the ability to make a reasonable judgment about the hypothesis.

The curriculum now used across all Physics 101 labs has been through multiple iterations since 2011, when the very first small-scale feasibility studies were run using IOLab prototypes in Physics 212. What started back then with the idea that IOLab could support the learning of physics concepts, evolved into a discussion of how it could support the development of creativity, communication, and analytical and decision-making skills.

Early on, Selen enlisted the help of Illinois Physics PER graduate student Katie Ansell to run pilot programs, develop an investigative-learning lab curriculum for Physics 211, and assess the new IOLab curriculum’s impact. Ansell, a natural teacher in her own right, is writing her doctoral thesis on this work.

Ansell recalls, “By the spring of 2014, we had shifted away from conceptual learning and focused more on the skills of decision making. From this point forward, prompts are devised to make students engage in meta-analyses: What is the problem? How am I thinking about this? What are my underlying assumptions? What equipment should I use to test my idea? What data are relevant and trustworthy? And how do I interpret the data?

“And whereas the old lab format had 16- to 20-page handouts with detailed instructions, our lab handouts contain only the overall experimental prompt and a few brief questions to help students organize the informal reports they write for us in class. The rest is up to them to figure out and communicate to us.

“As we went forward—introducing the first classroom IOLab components in the fall of 2015 and then doing three sections in the spring of 2016 and five sections in the fall of 2016—we learned where the gaps were in the students’ decision-making skills—things like how to read the data or how to know which part of a graph is relevant to a particular question. So we began to design tasks that made them confront those specific gaps, at the appropriate level of difficulty.”

Two more PER graduate students, Bill Evans and Gabe Ehrlich, were enlisted last academic year to modify the Physics 211 lab curriculum for use in Physics 101. To measure the effect of the new laboratory pedagogy on learning and the student experience, in Fall 2017 two sections of the traditional Physics 101 lab ran in parallel with three IOLab sections, each having about 30 students. Both the traditional and IOLab sections were video recorded and continue to be analyzed. The PER team also measured the IOLab curriculum’s impact through student surveys and by student performance on a practical exam that tested experimental skills.

Evans remarks, “The great thing about these new lab reforms using the IOLab is that we are really engaging the student. I really enjoyed teaching the traditional labs, but looking back, I can see how for the students, it was little more than jumping through hoops and filling out a worksheet. They would often go through the motions of doing science, without ever really doing science.”

Ehrlich shares, “What has been most striking to me is the extent to which students in the new labs take collective responsibility for doing science. It’s hard to say for sure at this early stage in video analysis, but it looks like a major and unexpected focus of students’ energy is problematization, a part of the scientific process in which collaborators frame a previously unquestioned observation as interesting, problematic, or worthy of further study. I rarely see students take ownership of their inquiry that way in more traditional learning environments.”

Illinois Physics students participate in a pilot study of the IOLab device during fall semester 2015.
Illinois Physics students participate in a pilot study of the IOLab device during fall semester 2015.
An Illinois Physics student takes a measurement using the IOLab, during a pilot study in the Fall 2015
An Illinois Physics student takes a measurement using the IOLab, during a pilot study in the Fall 2015. Photos by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Ansell adds, “Comparing students in our new labs to those who took the old lab format, we have seen that our IOLab students are much more likely to choose to use their new skills, and that those skills have helped them become more discerning about experimental procedures and results, as well as more sophisticated in their conception of what physics experiments can be used for.

“At this point, we’re working toward a sustainable teaching model and a stable course curriculum. We’ve put together a TA-training program, and we’ve started using learning assistants, students who previously took an IOLab section who come back and facilitate.”

IOLab is already in use at many other institutions, where educators are developing their own PER studies and their own IOLab curricula. Given the open-source software package, free software upgrades, and the low cost of the device itself, there are few limits on the ways IOLab can be incorporated into laboratory classes or even into pre-lecture activities.

Remarkably, it was only after Selen invented the IOLab in his garage and, as he puts it, had fun tinkering with it that he recognized its potential to help students develop their intuition for physics research. In fact, the original idea behind IOLab’s invention was to develop a wireless, portable electrocardiogram transmission device—for the fun of it.

That goal was achieved. The IOLab was successfully tested by U of I College of Medicine cardiologist Abrahim Kocheril in studies screening young athletes for prevention of sudden cardiac arrest—with members of the Fighting Illini football team as the studies’ cohorts.

Once Selen knew he wanted to use the device as an educational laboratory tool, he reached out to MacMillan Learning and the company was willing to invest in Selen’s further developing the IOLab device.

“It turns out for practical reasons, to implement an investigative-learning pedagogy with open-ended exercises in our labs, we needed this tool. I invented IOLab because it was fun. It’s luck that it’s turned out to be useful—the right tool for the job.”

Funding for curriculum development and assessment studies came from the National Science Foundation.

Selen sums up, “What happens when you present students with a problem and give them the tools to design their own experiments, they all come up with different ways to get at the answer. Each group approaches experimentation differently, and sometimes their ingenuity, for example, in using more than one sensor at the same time, has surprised us.

“Students also learn that experimentation is messy. Data aren’t always easy to interpret, and there is a method to refining results. They develop critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and sense-making skills—which really are very useful! What we are seeing being developed in our intro students using this new approach are really expert-like behaviors.”

This research was conducted with support from the National Science Foundation. The conclusions presented are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the funding agency.

For more information, visit the IOLab Science website at www.iolab.science and the MacMillan Learning website at www.macmillanlearning.com/iolab.