Science is the process of learning how the world works. Students come to class to learn about the world, but the world in the classroom often does not correspond to the world where they live their lives. Bridging the divide between these two worlds can be difficult and requires that students apply the same skills and thinking from the classroom to where they live.
Minerva’s mission to provide our students with practical and transferable knowledge is enabled by a dedicated effort to ensure students have opportunities to apply the concepts they are learning in the classroom to the world around them and to themselves. This is especially important in the Natural Sciences in which theoretical knowledge should be paired with hands-on experimentation and observation so that students can explore the full scope of the scientific method. At many traditional institutions, this is typically facilitated through laboratory courses. While these lab courses have the potential to offer valuable learning experiences, they tend to emphasize procedural information and skills, rather than engaging students in inquiry-based hypothesis development, experimental design, and analysis. At Minerva, rather than simulate real-world phenomena in a lab, students make a lab out of the real world.
Every course at Minerva has a “location-based” assignment, meaning that it includes certain elements that require students to go out and interact with their city of residence. This series will showcase examples of such assignments across different disciplines within the Natural Sciences, including physics, chemistry, and environmental sciences.
The assignments presented in this series can serve as examples to inspire educators to incorporate experiential learning in their Natural Science courses. All examples share a few common elements:
“Physics of Life” (NS110L) is an introductory physics course for Natural Science majors who are concentrating within the life sciences. It covers fundamental physics concepts with an emphasis on problem-solving techniques and life science applications. A few applications that students are exposed to include forces and torques in muscles and joints, fluid dynamics in the circulatory system, and heat regulation in living systems.
The location-based assignment for this course combines fundamental physics concepts, ranging from mechanics, fluids, and thermodynamics, with a memorable and adventurous experience in their location. As a bonus, this assignment requires students to get away from their screens and get some exercise.
Students are instructed to take a hike or walk at a location of their choice. On their journey, their own body becomes their physics laboratory. Students discover that they can apply physics concepts from class to more than just idealized examples with blocks, springs, and pulleys — they can apply the material to themselves!
During their hike, they must measure or estimate quantities along the way, such as distance, time, heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, and humidity. With these measurements in hand, students can compute several interesting physical quantities that span multiple units of the course.
All of these concepts were covered in the course and reinforced through in-class activities, but now, students can engage with them on a more meaningful level by applying the material to their own hiking experience. In doing so, physics concepts from the textbook are brought to life. For instance, by computing and comparing the magnitudes of the energies outputted to walk on a flat surface with the energy outputted to travel upward against gravity, students realize why they feel so out of breath and exhausted when they go up a set of stairs or a steep hill. Meanwhile, they could easily manage to walk on a flat surface for hours!
For the analysis, students are expected to provide a thorough interpretation of the results. Are they reasonable? Is this useful? What are the limitations? For instance, students might calculate that they sweat a total of 1.5 L even though they didn’t feel particularly sweaty during the hike. This mismatch isn’t necessarily a failure. It should prompt students to question their assumption that all of the “non-useful” work goes to heat and consider what a more reasonable assumption might be.
How to Create Your Own Location-Based Lab
Inspired by this example, educators can consider integrating the following aspects into their assignments or course projects:
By adopting the perspective that the world around you and your daily activities can serve as a physics playground, ideas for similar assignments will come to mind easily. Even standard textbook questions can serve as inspiration by asking yourself whether students could perform the required measurement or activity in their own location using readily available tools.
This article originally appeared in the Minerva Project blog.