Core at Mudd: Physics Lab!

I think the classes that have been changed the most this semester with remote learning are the labs. One of the things that Mudd has that really drew me to it to begin with was the chance to work with specialized equipment and get hands on experience (starting in frosh labs). Obviously, that’s not quite happening this year. There are some labs that really can’t be done at home and so were postponed to future semesters. Others have moved to using online simulations or old data to highlight the analysis part of labs. Still others have mailed materials to students or moved to using common household objects for experiments. I know each lab is responding differently, but I thought I would highlight how the Core physics lab has responded since that’s the class I’m in.

The Core physics lab isn’t attached to a specific class. It’s goal is to teach data collection, analysis, scientific communication, and, most importantly, how to think like an experimental physicist. This semester we are doing three labs, each of which took a slightly different approach to remote learning.

Lab 1: Measuring the Coefficient of Static Friction

For the first lab, we used common household items we had to measure the critical angle (the angle where the top item begins to slip) between two things and use it to calculate the coefficient of static friction. Our goal was to figure out if varying the mass changed the coefficient of static friction.

Phone and pen box on a tilted textbook.

My set-up for the experiment!

I used a pen box on a textbook for my experiment (and an app on my phone to measure the angle–there’s an app for everything). To vary the mass, I just added or subtracted pens inside the pen box. It was kind of fun to get to pick what I measured. Also a plus–this is the only time that I have gotten to measure mass in terms of pens instead of kilograms.

Lab 2: Measuring Viscosity

The second lab took a different approach to remote learning. Instead of using what we had around our houses, we used software to take measurements and model motion from videos. There were a set of videos of metal spheres dropping through a glycerin solution, and we went through them frame by frame to track their motion.

On the left side, a beaker containing liquid and a ball dropping. On the right side, a graph of position v time and a table of its values.

This is a screenshot of the program we used. Each red square marks where the sphere was for a frame. The table and graph to the left track those values.

Tracking the motion let us figure out the sphere’s terminal velocity and thus the viscosity of the glycerin solution. I also found this part pretty cool. I’m not sure what this lab looks like in a normal semester, but I think it worked pretty well online.

Lab 3: …?

This lab started with receiving a laser (and other lab supplies) in the mail, which was a very exciting start.

Three binder clips, a tape measure, four filters, two rolls of tape, a laser pointer and a container of Nerds candy on graph paper.

The lab supplies! Includes a lab snack.

This lab required supplies that I definitely did not have at home. We used diffraction gratings to split up the laser’s beam and calculated the wavelength of the light from the distance between the interference maxima.

A laser pointed at a wall that passes through a filter. On the wall, three red points are visible.

The experimental set-up for one of my data points!

Overall, I think physics lab adjusted pretty well to being remote. It was interesting to see three different ways of adapting and compare them. My favorite was probably the first, as it had the most freedom for what we could choose to measure, which made it really interesting.