[Project] Redesigned Calculus-Based Mechanics Lab

[Name] Xueli Zou and Anna Petrova-Maayor

[Title] Redesigned Calculus-Based Mechanics Lab

Course Name & Description: Physics for Students of Science and Engineering: Mechanics

Project Abstract:

This project will 

1) Revise the current calculus-based Mechanics lab of verification into inquiry-based hands-on activities with student design experiments following the research-based Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) method ( Students in ISLE laboratories design their own experiments to investigate new phenomena, test hypotheses, and solve multiple-part problems.

2) Introduce research-based PhET simulations, ISLE and YouTube video experiments, and develop more innovative videos with Vernier Go Direct Sensors as virtual labs. The simulations and videos are available for free online. PhET simulations are interactive PER-based simulations with the key concepts in physics, developed at
UC Boulder using realistic physics to generate models
( ISLE video experiments can be used as observational, testing, or application experiments for students to construct or apply concepts themselves ( We will introduce PhET  and ISLE/YouTube video experiments not only to help students better visualize and understand abstract concepts and their relationships before and during each lab, but also to reinforce lab learning experience using virtual experiments.

3. Implement the student centered active learning Environment using the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) model, blended with computer-based instructional technology (i.e, Vernier Go Direct devices). In the ISLE model, the lab activities are closely integrated with the lecture. Students use various sensors and software ( such as Vernier Graphical Analysis and LoggerPro) to design and test their own experiments.

Keywords/Tags: ISLE-based Mechanics Lab, Student design experiments with technology, physics videos and simulations, virtual physics experiments

Instructional Delivery: In class and online

Pedagogical Approaches:  Flipped Classroom, Supplemental Instruction, Peer Instruction, Learning Assistant (LA) Program, Active/Inquiry-based Learning (ISLE) 

About the LIT Redesign (Stage 1)

Background on the Redesign

Why Redesign your Course?

  • Course Characteristics: Mechanics (PHYS 204A) is the first course of the three-course introductory calculus-based physics sequence for science and engineering majors. Students who receive a grade of C- or higher from PHYS 204A are allowed to move onto 204B and/or 204C.
  • The Learning Problem: This is the very first physics class for many students and also they are just exposed to the first calculus course, so many students feel 204A very challenging. Historically, the DFW rate is ranged from 20-40%.

High Demand/Low Success/Facilities Bottleneck Issues

Describe the high demand/low success/facilities bottlenecks issues, if any, which are affecting the course you are redesigning? 

  • This course is the first calculus-based physics class that is required or recommended to take by almost all of students in the STEM fields. So this is a high demand course with class size of 72 students in lecture and 24 students in labs. This is the very first physics class for many students and also they are just exposed to the first calculus course, so many students feel 204A very challenging. Historically, the DFW rate is ranged from 20-40%. 
  • Only students who receive a grade of C- or higher from PHYS 204A are allowed to move onto 204B and/or 204C. So this class has become a bottleneck course for many STEM students to graduate in 4 or 5 years. 

Course History / Background

How is course placed in the department? 

  • This is an introductory level and fundamental calculus-based Mechanics course, which is required not only by Physics program but also by many other programs in STEM on campus. Historically the class size was small, from 24-48 students in lecture and 24 students in lab. However, due to the recent budget issues, the class size has been increased to 72 students in lecture and 24 students in lab.

(Upload syllabus from pre-designed course)204A_F17-APM.pdf

About the Students and Instructor(s) (Stage 2)

Student Characteristics

The population of students who take the course, and their incoming knowledge and/or skills that they typically have coming into the class:

  • This is the first of the three calculus-based introductory physics courses. Typically, 80%-90% of the students are engineering majors and 20-10% of them are science majors, for example, in computer science, physics, or chemistry. As the first calculus course is a prerequisite for this class,  students rarely take the course in their first year. Therefore, about 60% of the students are sophomores, 25% of them are juniors, and 15% are seniors and freshmen.
  • It is worth mentioning that among those students, about 50% of them are either Hispanic, first-generation, or economically disadvantaged students.
  • Many of them have difficulties in algebra and calculus, and are not well equipped with effective learning skills.

Advice I Give my Students to be Successful

What are the instructions you give your students so they have a first-rate learning experience? Consider providing as much detail as possible.

  • BE COOL: 
  • 1) Breakfast is important--Don't have an empty stomach in class and it is difficult for you to stay focused. 
  • 2) Enjoy the present moment-Enjoy learning physics in physics class; enjoying learning English in English class; Don't do English in physics class or vice versa. 
  • 3) Control your cellphone! Don't play on your cell in class; use your phone wisely as a tool, but not a weapon to kill your time! 
  • 4) Organize everything--your knowledge, time, learning materials, your room...! 
  • 5) Out--find time to go for workout! Physically being active helps with mental health. 
  • 6) Learn as many new, useful, meaningful things as possible every day! Become a better of yourself every day--this is what you are here for!

Impact of Student Learning Outcomes/Objectives (SLOs) on Course Redesign

  • List approximately 5 - 10 learning outcomes which will determine what students will know and be able to do as a result of this course. The assessments you facilitate in your course should be appropriate measures of these learning outcomes.
  • 1. Explain physics concepts and laws to others.
  • 2. Apply physics knowledge to solve real-world problems.
  • 3. Represent physical concepts and processes in multiple ways, including diagrams, graphs, mathematical equations, and verbal explanations.
  • 4. Build a model of physical situations, including making appropriate assumptions, simplifications, estimations, and mathematical formulations. Students should also understand the limitations of these models.
  • 5. Design and implement experiments to empirically investigate physical phenomena including defining the problem, testing models, using instruments to make measurements, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions.
  • 6. Evaluate the validity of experimental and/or calculated results.
  • 7. Work productively in teams.
  • 8. In the context of problem solving or conducting an investigation, recognize gaps in their knowledge and be able to marshal diverse resources to fill those gaps.

Alignment of SLOs With LIT Redesign

Briefly describe how the course redesign will align with the SLOs.

  • In LIT lab, students work together in small groups of 3-4, and "explain physics concepts and laws to others (SLO #1) and design and conduct experiments as one team (SLO # 7).
  • Students use new wireless sensors to collect and analyze data, which makes date collection and analysis so efficient. So students are able to have time to design their own experiments (SLOs # 2, 5).
  • LIT students also conduct inquiry-based observational experiments for each new concept (SLO #4) and design and conduct some real-life experiments (SLO #8).
  • In the LIT lab, the new sensors are supported by computer programs (i.e., Vernier Logger Pro and Graphical Analysis), so it is much easier for students to represent data in graphical and mathematical formats (SLO #3).

Assessments Used to Measure Students' Achievement of SLOs

How are you planning to assess the students' achievement regarding the SLOs? What course activities are you planning to measure?If you use an assessment rubric(s), please upload here.

  • Force Concept Inventory will be given as pre- and post-test to measure student conceptual understanding.
  • A survey will be given to collect students ideas about the usage of new sensors and data collection system.
  • Embedded weekly lab group quiz measures students' conceptual understanding and problem solving skills in the multiple representation format. (SLOs # 1, 3, 7)
  • Embedded student design tasks in each lab formatively assess students problem solving skills and scientific investigation abilities (SLOs 4, 5, 6)
  • Bi-weekly individual short tests formatively assess each student's conceptual understanding, problem solving, and evaluation skills (SLOs 1, 3, 7, 8)

Accessibility, Affordability, and Diversity Accessibility

Share how you have considered designing the course to serve students with varied abilities. Does the technology support all students, including students with disabilities? Consider tapping into campus resources for video captioning or appropriate syllabus design for sight-impaired students.

  • Yes, we are working with our campus resources to see if we need to add captions to those LIT videos.


Are the course materials and technologies used readily available and affordable for your students? Describe the potential cost savings when using more affordable learning materials. To learn more: AL$, COOL4Ed, or MERLOT

  • Those Vernier sensors and programs are free for students. Simulations and videos are free to students too. There is no additional cost for LIT students, compared to the students in more traditional labs.  


Do the pedagogical strategies support students' learning with diverse backgrounds? For example, consider cultural, ethnic,gender, student learning style preferences, socioeconomic status, first generation students, etc.

  • Yes, physics education research-approved pedagogical strategies have been implemented in the LIT lab.

About the Instructor

  • Instructor name. Please provide a 4-5 sentence description of your professional background and interests, your teaching philosophy, or anything else you'd like to share publicly. Suggestion: Add a picture and/or video.

  • Dr. Xueli "Suelee" Zou is the instructor for this course. She received her Ph.D. in physics with a specialty in physics education research from The Ohio State University in 2000. She was one of the three original professors who developed and tested the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) in calculus-based introductory mechanics and EM courses. ISLE students learn physics by “doing physics,” which mirrors the process of practical scientists conduct scientific research. The ISLE has been well recognized and adopted in many college and high school physics classes not only in U.S. but also in some other countries. She is also recognized as the first poineer to develop and implement student design experiments in the introductory physics labs and as one of the few experts in the multiple representation problem solving strategy.
  • Her current research interests include assessing the impact of new technology on student learning in studio physics, developing and evaluating student design experiments using the new technology, and developing and testing UD-modern physics in studio format.

Curriculum Vitae

LIT Redesign Planning (Stage 3)

Implementing the Redesigned Course What aspects of your course have you redesigned?

What are you now doing or planning to do through the redesign of your course? For example, "I used to lecture with some question/answer periods for 50 minutes. Now I "flipped" the classroom and have my students solve problems in groups of 4 during the class and I present 10 minute mini-lectures when students are confused about key topics."

  • Introductory Mechanics lab was taught in more or less the traditional way with using Pasco sensors and Capstone program. The Capstone program was confusing and difficult for many students to use, and the lab activities were much shorter than the lab time of 3 hours and in the predict-experiment-verify format.
  • Now we have purchased new wireless sensors and Graphical Analysis program from Vernier. Those sensors and the computer program are very user-friendly, so that students can spend more time on doing experiments, instead of struggling with figuring out how to use the computer program. 

  • We have designed 15 new labs using those sensors, based on the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) learning cycle, a PER-approved learning strategy that encourages students to learn physics by “doing physics,” which mirrors the process of practical scientists conduct scientific research. In particular, student design experiments are developed. We have also integrated PhET simulations as pre- and post-lab activities. Now we are working on introducing video analysis into the lab. 

Describe the class size(s) What technology is being used?

What technology strategies have you adopted and why? Explain how you have incorporated the technology to enhance your course redesign

  • The lab has 24 students. We have introduced 1) Vernier Go Direct sensors and Graphical Analysis software, 2) PhET simulations, and 3) Vernier Video Analysis.

What professional development activities have you participated during your course redesign?

The PLC webinars, technology training, conferences, etc. § Key concepts learned?

  • Transferring STEM Education Faculty Learning Community, sponsored by NSF grant in collaboration between US Berkeley, Chico State, Community colleges.
  • The PLC webinars

Which Additional Resources Were Needed for the Redesign?

Describe, for example, how you might have incorporated or consulted with institutional research, instructional designers, department or campus colleagues, librarian, and/or the accessibility technology center.

  • No, we did not use any of those resources.

(Upload your revised syllabus here)204A Syllabus Spring 20.pdf

LIT Results and Findings (Stage 4)

LIT Redesign Impact on Teaching and Learning

How has the course redesign strategies affected your instruction and your students’ learning? Did your redesign strategy solve the issues that motivated you to redesign the course?

  • The LIT lab has advanced our calculus-based Mechanics lab from more or less experiments of verification into an active learning environment centered around student design experiments, aiming at better addressing the student learning outcomes.
  • Vernier Go-direct sensors and Graphical Analysis software have been introduced to replace Pasco Capstone program, which many students and faculty complained about how confusing/difficult to use. Those sensors have been already used by other professors who teach other sessions of the same course.
  • Some innovative and existing videos of physics experiments have been developed or used for virtual labs, in particular, during the time of shelter-in-place order. 
  • The three major goals for this project, as listed above, were well achieved, although it is always an ongoing process to enhance lab curriculum and student learning in general. The redesigned lab activities did help resolve the concerns/issues that motivated us to conduct the LIT project, as stated above. 

Describe how your students mastered the student learning outcomes. Were the students more successful in the redesigned course than in previous courses? Explain.

  • SLO #1 & 7: The students worked together in a small group of 3-4, discussed and conducted learning tasks together both in lecture and lab settings. They explained physics concepts and laws to others. The normalized gain factor of Force Concept Inventory from Spring 2020 is 0.44, which is much higher than g = 0.2-0.3 from the traditional classes locally and nationwide. The students also took a group quiz together every week in lab, aiming not only to enhance their problem solving skills but also to promote their teamwork skills.
  • SLO #3: In the redesigned course, the multiple-representation problem solving strategy has been systematically and explicitly introduced. The students used this method to solve homework problems, take tests, and conduct hands-on experiments.
  • SLOs # 2, 4-6, & 8: In the redesigned course, our students were given chances to design their own experiments. Those experiments could be observational, testing, or application tasks. To implementing those tasks, the students must go through the scientific investigation procedure, such as "defining the problem, testing models, using instruments to make measurements, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions." In addition, they had to make assumptions and simplify things based on what materials or equipment that were available at hands.  Moreover, the students were required to design an additional experiment to evaluate their own result for every single design task. 

Did you experience unexpected results after teaching the redesigned course? If so, what were they?

  • The impact of the pandemic of COVID-19 was unexpected. As we all experienced, our in-person teaching was forced to switch to remote learning over the spring break in Spring 2020. So this redesigned course was changed to 100% online instruction, which was unexpected.
  • This historical difficult time impacted on student learning and lives in many ways. For example, in this redesigned course, there was 11% of the students got W or WU, which was directly related to the pandemic. This result was unexpected. 

Consider attaching a more in-depth report describing the impact of your activities and experiences during the course redesign as a document/link/image. If possible consider including samples of students' work that reflect the impact of the redesign.

Assessment Findings

Use table and chart template to report course data (required).

Upload table and chart from your template (required) and reflect on your findings with a short description. You must include a course grades comparison of pre/post student achievements.

Based on the data above, we could conclude as the followings: 

  • The number of the students who earned A's is similar in the pre and post course.
  • The number of the students who earned B's is 16% higher in the per-course than that in the redesigned course.
  • However, the number of the students who earned C's is 7% lower in the pre-course than that in the redesigned course.
  • The DFW rate in the redesigned class is 15%, compared to 6% in the per-course.
  • Apparently, in terms of the students' grades, students' performance in the redesigned course is not as good as that from the pre-course. Here are possible reasons: 
    • The pre-course had an active learning environment in lecture, although its labs were more or less in the traditional format.
    • The negative impact of the pandemic on student learning was significant. 

Share how your students achieved the learning outcomes? Describe how they mastered the learning outcomes compared to previous courses?

  • Although in terms of student grades, due to the pandemic, the students' performance in the redesigned course is not as good as that in the pre-course, the students' achievements, measured by the SLOs, would be better in the redesigned course in the following ways:
    • In the pre-course, the students did verification labs, where well-defined tasks were given. They had little chances to conduct any experiments that would require to experience the authentic scientific investigation process. In contrast, in the redesigned lab, the students were challenged to design their own experiments, which directly help them develop those skills addressed in the SLOs.
    • As a part of the final exam in the redesigned course, each student presented either his/her own experiment or a virtual experiment during the five-minute presentation. Many students did amazing jobs, showing their higher-level skills addressed in the SLOs.
    • The students worked together in a small group of 3-4. They explained physics concepts and laws to others. The normalized gain factor of Force Concept Inventory from Spring 2020 is 0.44, which is much higher than g = 0.2-0.3 from the traditional classes locally and nationwide. 
    • The students also took a group quiz together every week in lab, aiming not only to enhance their problem solving skills but also to promote their teamwork skills.

Student Feedback

What did your students say or how did they respond to the redesigned activities? Consider including your students' comments about their learning. Include survey results if you are able to capture them. Include student video feedback (optional).

An essay survey was conducted at the end of the semester to collect the students' feedback on the redesigned labs. 32 out of 53 students participated in the survey. students Here is a summary, including the students' comments: 

Question 1: What do you like most about the online lab that included videos of experiments and data graphs analyzed by Vernier Graphical Analysis? How did this experience help you understand the concepts and develop problem solving skills?

  • A majority of the students liked the videos and graphs were matched and liked Vernier Graphical Analysis software for data analyses. "To me when it comes to this part of the lab there wasn't much difference between online. I did really appreciate that I was able to see a video along with the Vernier graph so I can visually see what the graph is representing." "shock you with real number from the experiment that i didn't expect." "The labs that included prerecorded data allowed us to skip the struggle of setting up the lab and go straight into solving the work and understanding it.  It allowed us to not waste time and brain power on the setup and focus more on the concepts."

Question 2: What do you like least about the online lab that included videos of experiments and data graphs analyzed by Vernier Graphical Analysis? What is your input to improve it? 

  • Some students complained that the virtual labs were too long. During in-person lab, the students usually stopped doing experiments when the lab time ended, as they could not continue to do the lab without access to the equipment. On the other hand, for the virtual labs, all the videos were available, so we asked the students to finish all the given lab tasks. "Some of them were too long and it was hard to get a lot done in the lab."
  • Some students felt some difficulties in using the Vernier Graphical Analysis at the very beginning of the online labs. "It had a little bit of a learning curve because when we did the IN PERSON labs, we had only one lab partner on the computer doing the analysis so when switching i was ill-prepared at first."
  • Another concern from some students is that some videos are too fast and hard to understand what was going on there. "The videos on times where to short and the graphs could be hard to interpret."

Question 3: What do you like most about the online lab presentation that included either your own designed lab or an experiment from YouTube? How did this experience help you understand the concepts and develop problem solving skills?

  • Most of the students really liked the student design tasks, which challenge them to think how to apply the cocnepts that they have learned. "I liked it a lot because we got to chose our own experiment which made it fun. Also I believe that if you can teach a subject, that's when you understand it the most." "Include my own design because it helps me to think about it and about how the experiment works." "It was really fun to have to come up with my own experiment. It really put me up to the test on what I’ve learned this semester." "I liked how I developed my own experiment and then from that developed main questions that encompassed major concepts. It helped to visualize and explain conceptual laws like conservation of momentum.

Question 4: What do you like least about the online lab presentation that included either your own designed lab or an experiment from YouTube? What is your input to improve it? 

  • As this is a intro physics lab for students in engineering and science, so many of them liked the hands-on experience, rather than pure virtual experiments.  "We weren't able to physically do our experiment which made it a bit difficult to understand the whole experiment. The best way to improve this is to make a simple lab experiment that we could use in our home." "I think a good part of the learning and memorization process is being able to experience the physics phenomena in person and hands on which we couldn't do with the online labs."

Challenges my Students Encountered

What challenges did the students encounter in the redesigned activities? E.g., technical challenges, organization of course, and redesigned activities.

  • Asking the students to design their own experiments is challenging for many of them at the very beginning. They did not know how to do it. So it is important to start with simple design tasks and provide some guides when needed.
  • For each design task, basically the students were asked to design two different experiments. Usually the students felt more challenging to come up with an additional experiment to evaluate their result from the first design task.  
  • Compared with Capstone program, Vernier Graphical Analysis is easier for the students to learn and use. However, it still takes time to them to get familiar with the program. So the detailed instruction needs to be given in the lab manual.

Lessons Learned & Redesign Tips

Teaching Tips

What advice do you have for others who might want to use this redesigned course?

  • Many students like to design their own experiments either individually or in a small group setting. However, those tasks are challenging for many of them at the very beginning. Therefore, it is important to start with simple design tasks and to provide some guides when needed.
  • The instructor in the redesigned lab plays a role as a facilitator, a mentor, and/or a personal resource, rather than an authority figure. One of the key figures for the student design tasks is to ask the students to design and conduct at least one additional experiment to evaluatate their own result, instead of the answer from the instructor.  
  • Although Vernier Graphical Analysis is a user-friendly program, it still takes time for the students to get familiar with the program. So it is useful to include detailed instruction about how to use it in the lab manual. 

Course Redesign Obstacles

What challenges did you confront and how did you overcome them?

  • One of the goals for this lab redesign project was to purchase Vernier GoDirect sensors to develop new labs. During the first semester of this project (Fall 2019), it was very stressful for us as we often were waiting for the sensors, while the next lab was coming up. We often had to work hard over weekends, testing the new sensors, developing new lab activities, and writing new lab manual.
  • During the 2nd semester of the project (Spring 2020), the coronarrvirus pandemic occured after the spring break and all the labs went online. We had to borrow some sensors home and worked extremely hard to develop some experiment videos to implement virtual labs. 

Strategies I Used to Increase Engagement

What pedagogical strategies did you use in your new redesigned course to engage students?

  • The investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE) was implemented: The concepts were introduced based on observations.
  • The multiple representation problem-solving strategy was practiced:
  • The student design experiments were introduced and tested.
  • Teamwork: The students worked in a small group of 3-4 together.
  • Assessment for Learning is practiced every week by giving a group quiz in lab. 


How do plan to sustain the LIT redesign beyond the funding period?

  • The key lab equipment for this project, e.g., Vernier GoDirect sensors, was in placed in Fall 2019, thanks to an internal fund. Those sensors, smart carts, and dymanic tracks have began to used not only for this redesigned section, but also in the other parallel session of the same course.
  • During Summer and Fall 2020, we will use those sensors to continuosly develop more virtual labs as we will teach online due to the pandemic.
  • If by Spring 2021 in-person classes will be resumed, those virtual labs can be used as pre-lab and post-lab activities.
  • We will continue to develop and implement student design experiments

Instructor Reflection

Reflect on your participation in redesigning a course, development of an ePortfolio, participation in CSU Course Redesign Professional Learning Community Share any plans to disseminate/publish the findings of your course redesign activity.

  • This is a great professional experience where the faculty who are interested in using virtual technology in learning met together. 
  • The project helps us staying focused and creative in developing the virtual labs during the pandemic.
  • The Vernier sensors purchased for this project has been used by other parallel lab sessions.
  • We will share the student design experiments and virtual labs with the parallel sessions of the course beginning in Fall 2020.