Surprising new research changes DTU’s physics teaching

Thursday 28 May 20

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Kristoffer Haldrup
Senior Researcher
DTU Physics
+45 22 98 37 20

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Ole Lynnerup Trinhammer
Head of Nanoteket (experimetal teaching lab)
DTU Physics
+45 45 25 32 12

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Carsten Knudsen
Senior Executive Education Officer
DTU Physics
+45 45 25 31 05

In the future, conventional experiments will be replaced by new types of experiments in DTU’s physics teaching that provide students with a number of skills that all engineers need.

It has long been widely acknowledged in the world of education that students learn better through a hands-on approach in which they try things out for themselves. The plan was therefore also to include conventional experiments in DTU’s basic physics courses when a new teaching facility was ready.

Therefore, it came as a great surprise when new American research convincingly demonstrated a couple of years ago that students did not learn either more or less when the physics teaching also included experiments. The learning outcome was virtually zero when measured against the student’s performance at a written physics exam.

“In turn, our colleagues from Cornell University and Stanford University had proposals for experimental approaches that aren’t just about verifying theoretical concepts in physics, but instead provide an opportunity to discuss and decide how the theory can be tested,” says Senior Researcher Kristoffer Haldrup, who, together with Carsten Knudsen and Ole Trinhammer, is responsible for the organization of the new experimental activities in DTU’s physics teaching.

The new teaching methods have been developed in collaboration with, among others, Associate Professor Natasha Holmes from Cornell, who visited DTU in connection with the first trial experiments. Experiments with which the students have subsequently expressed great satisfaction.

Physics courses modernized with new experiments 

"In future, the focus of the experiments will be on students acquiring insight into when an experimental set-up is suitable for generating the data that can provide specific and quantitative answers in relation to a given study"
Kristoffer Haldrup

The new knowledge has meant that the introductory physics courses—which are mandatory for virtually all engineering students—will look completely different. 

“In future, the focus of the experiments will be on students acquiring insight into when an experimental set-up is suitable for generating the data that can provide specific and quantitative answers in relation to a given study. Physics is the obvious framework for this kind of learning, as—in many situations—the underlying theory is very simple conceptually. It provides an opportunity to design experiments that really cut through to the bone of the phenomena that you want to examine—for example energy conservation. This means that—instead of having to deal with a large number of details—the students can concentrate on qualifying and quantifying the experimental data,” explains Kristoffer Haldrup.

Knowing how to establish a reliable experimental set-up and being able to analyse the data obtained quantitatively—and thus move from data via results to knowledge and insight—is a fundamental ability that all engineers will need later on, regardless of whether they work with building structures or new healthcare technology. 

This is consequently something of a paradigm shift in the physics teaching, where—in future—the students will not simply be given the formula for a physics experiment that they are to conduct. Instead, they are to reflect on how they will conduct a series of experiments in—for example—impulse conservation or heating machines, gather and analyse data from the experiment, and then describe what they have measured. It provides a completely exploratory learning framework, as there is not just one single correct solution, but several ways to arrive at the conclusion. 

New laboratories support the physics experimentarium

The new teaching form is completely in line with DTU’s strategy to offer Europe’s best engineering education. 

“Such a radical change of the classic physics teaching to a completely new type of experiments is an excellent example of how our teaching at DTU is constantly being optimized to meet the highest quality standards, while also providing our students with a sound basis for being able to develop new technologies for the benefit of people and society. In addition, we’ve renovated one of our auditorium buildings so that—in future—we can also offer the right physical settings for conducting the new type of experiments,” says Lars D. Christoffersen, Senior Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Student Affairs. 

At the same time, DTU Physics has purchased modern measuring equipment for use in the experiments. This is robust equipment with multiple functions, including as light meter, barometer, magnetometer, and accelerometer, and which transmits the measured data to the students’ computers in real time. The students will thus not be limited in the data which they are actually able to obtain during the experiments. 

The plan is to introduce the new type of physics experiments from September 2020, when the first 400 DTU students will become acquainted with them.

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