Could you work out where you were in the world, using only a simple pendulum?
That was the task set to first-year physics students at the University of Hull.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities to transition to online, remote learning, the Physics Department at the University devised an innovative way to ensure practical, lab-themed work could continue.
Known as Project Tadpole - The Accessible Physics Laboratory – first-year students were each given a kit which enabled them to work on practical experiments from home.
The students were asked what appear to be simple questions, but these questions actually challenge them to design, build and perform experiments from scratch and analyse their data as a professional Physicist would.
The project was supported by the Ferens Education Trust, who provided funding for the student kits and two undergraduates to help develop and test the scheme.
Dr Howard Snelling, a Lecturer in Physics at the University of Hull, said: “We were conscious that, coming into the new academic year in September, we wanted to provide students with as authentic a practical learning experience as possible.
“We wanted to deliver a laboratory which could be accessed from anywhere and benefit students – it would not matter whether you were at home, or having to self-isolate for any reason.
“The kit itself is small enough for students to fit in their rucksacks, so in the event we were able to return to face-to-face lab sessions, they could pack it up and bring it with them each week.”
The first challenge set to first-year students was to see if they could determine their latitude using a pendulum. This required them to make a hypothesis, perform an initial, simple experiment, analyse the data carefully, and ultimately determine that they couldn’t.
What then followed was a series of repetitions gradually increasing the quality and complexity of the experiment. This developed skills in experiment design and execution, electronics, and evaluation of uncertainties; all skills that a professional Physicist needs.
The Tadpole kit includes all of the parts needed to answer this initial research question as well as more that have followed. It features a digital multimeter for voltage, current, resistance and temperature, as well as a programmable microcontroller for computer-based data capture, and other mechanical and electronic components.
Dr Elke Roediger, Director of Studies for Physics, said: “Despite initially employing a relatively simple piece of physics, the way that we have challenged the students to answer a question experimentally is a massive leap from what any of the students will have experienced at school.
“The response to Project Tadpole has been really positive – students had the chance to take part in a practical physics experiment, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.”
Dr Snelling said: “It was a busy summer getting prepared and we are very grateful to have been able to use the money from the Ferens Education Trust to fund two of our current students, Elisha Weightman and Sophie Owen, to assist Elke and I in developing the resources necessary for online delivery.
“We have been using Microsoft Teams to allow interaction between us and the first-year students and for them to collaborate with each other.”
Professor Brad Gibson, Head of Physics at the University, said: “Under the leadership of Drs Snelling and Roediger, our first year Physics students were provided with unique hands-on practical experiments which were the envy of the UK’s Physics community.
“The rapid recognition that a workable solution was at hand, coupled with the timely support of the Ferens Education Trust, is a testament to the students-first ethos which permeates the Department.
“I could not be prouder of the team which deployed Project Tadpole so successfully.”
Earlier this year, it was also announced that two European-wide projects which hope to change the future of both computing and nuclear astrophysics had helped the University of Hull secure £1m of Physics funding.
The Physics Department was successful in two grant funding bids, on offer as part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.
One project is focused on improving the performance and speed of future computers, with the second centred on improving knowledge exchange with businesses and research centres across Europe.