Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Importance of Labs in Natural Science Classwork.

Natural science labs can show us that the science and mathematics we are learning in class have real world effects that go far beyond what you first imagine when you  begin taking the course. It's not just playing with numbers; you can model systems, predict values, and make real things work the first time, using what we are learning in college. A physics lab I recently completed made me realize just how important these labs are. 

The physics lab was a demonstration of opposing forces using three strings tied to a ring in the center, each string at different angles. We were given the force on one string and the three angle.  We had to calculate the force needed on the other two strings, then convert those forces into weights to place on the loops at the end of each string.

The math we used was just simple trigonometry, but I won't go into details on the mathematics. What was important was going through the process to find the weights to put onto the end of each string and then pulling the pin in the middle of the ring to see if they were balanced or not. If they were not balanced the ring would move towards the string with the greatest force and the weight could bang down, embarrassingly loud, onto the table. If the three forces were balanced the ring would stay in place.

There is a moment of tension once you are done and everything is set up.  The instructor slowly reaches out and pulls the pin.   Is the ring going to stay in place, or is it going to drop a weight onto the tabletop?  To see the ring stay in place with wildly different weights on the end of each of those three strings was amazing. You could have guessed and tried to balance the weights for hours before figuring it out by trial and error. To be able to work though a little bit of trig and algebra for a few minutes, followed by having the weights balance on the first try was really cool.  But I realized at that point that these labs are teaching much more than just a few equations. 

These labs are teaching us to have confidence in what we are learning. Not by taking anything on faith, or merely obeying the teachers authority, but by having us actually perform the experiments ourselves to prove that what we are learning works in the real world. Several groups of us in the lab worked the problems three times in a row with different values each time and every group balanced the forces, keeping the ring in place each time. When teachers and scientists talk about experiments being repeatable in the scientific method, they mean that different groups of us can prove that the formulas work by performing experiments. I'm not going into the scientific method in detail in this paper, but one of the cornerstones is that scientists are required to repeat experiments to prove they are true. I never thought that applied to me until now.

I felt like a scientist when the ring stayed in place.  My contribution is tiny at this point, but I now know that I am participating with millions of other humans in a great striving towards increasing our understanding of the universe. It is humbling to realize that every person performing a lab is replicating an experiment, even if it has been replicated a billion times before, they are all participating in the scientific method as a scientist. I realize that the scientific laws aren't laws because some old, epically bearded, dead dude says they are. They are laws because they are proven to be true by every person taking a science class.  They are laws because “I” proved that the formulas are real and the results are repeatable. 

Teachers tell us how important science is again and again in every course, but hearing something and knowing something are two different things. Everything they have been teaching me this quarter finally came together in a moment of wonder, when that ring stayed in place. To see mathematics actually reach out into the real world and to see the implications of how it ties into the scientific method was life changing.  This is what natural science labs are teaching at their core.

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