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Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves: based

on the ACELL approach

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2010 Eur. J. Phys. 31 23

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Eur. J. Phys. 31 (2010) 23–35 doi:10.1088/0143-0807/31/1/003

Educational analysis of a first year


engineering physics experiment on
standing waves: based on the ACELL
approach
Ragbir Bhathal1 , Manjula D Sharma2 and
Alberto Mendez2,3
1 School of Engineering, University of Western Sydney, NSW1797, Australia
2 School of Physics, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
3 Department of Physics & Advanced Materials, University of Technology, Sydney, NSW 2007,
Australia

E-mail: r.bhathal@uws.edu.au

Received 13 August 2009, in final form 11 September 2009


Published 4 November 2009
Online at stacks.iop.org/EJP/31/23

Abstract
This paper describes an educational analysis of a first year physics experiment
on standing waves for engineering students. The educational analysis is
based on the ACELL (Advancing Chemistry by Enhancing Learning in the
Laboratory) approach which includes a statement of educational objectives
and an analysis of student learning experiences. The experiment is likely to
be found in many physics departments, hence is appropriate to illustrate the
ACELL approach in physics. The concepts associated with standing waves are
difficult; however, they are underpinned by mathematical formulation which
lend themselves to be visualized in experiments. The challenge is to strike
a balance between these two for the particular student cohort. In this study,
this balance is achieved by using simple equipment and providing appropriate
scaffolds for students to associate abstract concepts with concrete visuals. In
essence the experiment is designed to adequately manage cognitive resources.
Students work in pairs and are questioned and assisted by demonstrators and
academic staff during a 2 h practical class. Students were surveyed using
the ACELL instrument. Analysis of the data showed that by completing
the practical students felt that their understanding of physics had increased.
Furthermore, students could see the relevance of this experiment to their
engineering studies and that it provided them with an opportunity to take
responsibility for their own learning. Overall they had a positive learning
experience. In short there is a lot of dividend from a small outlay of resources.

0143-0807/10/010023+13$30.00 
c 2010 IOP Publishing Ltd Printed in the UK 23
24 R Bhathal et al

1. Introduction

Laboratory-based practicals are a long-standing tradition in undergraduate physics education


(Hanif et al 2009). So it is not surprising that the European Journal of Physics just recently
dedicated an issue to practical work (EJP Special Section 2007). Despite the tradition, Hofstein
and Lunetta’s (1982) conclusion that research on ‘how learning’ and ‘what learning’ occurs
in laboratories is minimal, is still valid. Furthermore, studies have shown that the potential of
learning in laboratories is not fully realized (Feteris 2007, Richardson et al 2008, Campbell
2000).
In the current climate where laboratories are viewed as expensive, and laboratory time
can easily include projects, talks and computational activities, time spent on learning basic
laboratory skills and understanding how evidence supports theory is reducing (Sharma et al
2005). In some targeted rationalizations, time spent in laboratories has been reduced. In
this scenario systematic research and evaluation of learning in laboratories is vital for two
reasons. First, we need to provide the optimum effective learning environment in the limited
time available and second, we need to gather evidence to support laboratory learning as vital
for physics students. A range of approaches can be taken, from the evaluation of individual
experiments to entire program evaluations.
In the Australian context, the former has been tackled by the chemistry education
community through ACELL—Advancing Chemistry by Enhancing Learning in the
Laboratory. Through 2007 and 2008, ACELL has been trialled in physics. The experiment
described in this paper has been identified as a successful experiment according to the ACELL
criteria. The process of broadening ACELL into ASELL where S stands for science has been
initiated. The particular experiment that is the focus of this paper is on standing waves.
The purpose of this paper is to
(a) provide a brief description of ACELL and
(b) present an educational analysis based on the ACELL approach of the experiment on
standing waves.

2. The ACELL approach

ACELL has two overarching goals. The primary goal is ‘to make available tested, educationally
sound laboratory experiments, which may be used to improve the quality of learning in
laboratory courses’ (ACELL Homepage). The secondary goal is to develop a community of
practice amongst educators within the discipline area. To achieve these goals, over 10 years,
a methodology underpinned by rigorous educational research has been developed. A series
of templates needs to be completed and evaluation strategies adhered to. We provide below a
brief glimpse of the ACELL approach.
An ACELL workshop is held in which a set of experiments from different institutions
undergo the preliminary ACELL evaluation procedure (Buntine et al 2007). Each experiment
has a proponent who presents an experiment from their department. For their experiment
the proponent provides the experiment script, demonstrator notes, technical notes, notes on
occupational health and safety issues or risk assessment and an educational template. The
education template contains information such as the place of the experiment within the course,
which year it fits into and students’ requisite prior knowledge. Furthermore, it details the
desired learning outcomes and requires the proponent to clarify the processes by which these
are to be learnt and indicators by which the learning may be assessed (discussed in more
detail in section 4). The experiments are then run live at the workshop with participants
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 25

who comprise undergraduate students, demonstrators/tutors and academics. Apart from the
proponent no other participants would have seen the experiment before. The participants
provide feedback through surveys and facilitated discussion sessions. Only those experiments
that meet the pre-determined criteria (ACELL Guidelines and Procedures) progress to the next
stage.
The selected experiments are then evaluated using extensive data gathered from students
in the proponent’s home institution. If these data are satisfactory then the experiment is ready
for submission for publication (Wajrak and Rummey 2004). The experiment on standing
waves presented in this paper was one of the two experiments out of the eight at the ACELL
workshop to satisfy all criteria. Experiments that are borderline respond to feedback from the
ACELL workshop and depending on the situation can be evaluated with students. Those that
do not meet the criteria are iteratively improved.
The ACELL process has been developed on the premise that academics will have expertise
in their own discipline, but not necessarily educational expertise. Thus, it carries out an
educational evaluation of individual experiments so that others can modify and adapt into
their local environments. The process requires investment of time by the proponent but a
sound methodology has been developed. A key element is checking that there is ‘constructive
alignment’ (Biggs 1999) between learning objectives/outcomes, processes and assessment
and that this alignment exists for students and staff—ranging from academic staff to tutors.

3. Background to the experiment

3.1. Why is the study of waves important?

Waves and wave phenomena play an important role in many areas of physics and engineering,
such as quantum mechanics, acoustics, electrical engineering and civil engineering. It is, thus,
important that students have a sound understanding of the fundamental nature and properties
of waves. By having this understanding they will be able to appreciate the wave nature of
matter, the phenomena of interference and diffraction and the role of standing waves and
resonance in musical instruments, concert halls, construction of high-rise buildings and in the
construction of bridges.

3.2. Why is physics of waves difficult to understand?

A number of research studies have highlighted that undergraduate students find waves and
wave phenomena difficult to understand and explain (Tongchai et al 2009, Linder 1993,
Wittmann 2003). It appears that some students have inadequate reasoning resources while
others have difficulty with conceptual models in physics. In both cases, students find it difficult
to visualize the mathematical equations used to describe waves. By using a simple experiment
on standing waves it is possible to focus on associating concepts with mathematical equations.
The simplicity of the experiment is a key feature in that the students’ cognitive resources
are not distracted by sophisticated equipment and measurements, rather are concerned with
reasoning and developing conceptual models.

3.3. Standing waves on a string

Standing waves are confined by boundary conditions, for example, a string fixed at both ends
which is explored in this experiment. Students are expected to spend an hour before the
laboratory session to understand two pages of text supplied in their laboratory manual as well
as revisit their lecture notes. They are expected to have some understanding of the wave
26 R Bhathal et al

equation and the relationship between the speed of a moving wave (v), mass/length (μ) and
the tension (T) in the string (see equations (1) and (2)).
y(x, t) = [2A sin kx] sin ωt (1)
where k = 2π /λ is the wave number and ω = 2π f is the angular frequency.

T
v= . (2)
μ

3.4. What happens in the laboratory?

Waves and wave phenomena are generally covered in first year physics courses for physics and
engineering majors (Young and Friedman 2008). This standing waves experiment has been
running in the first year engineering physics unit at the University of Western Sydney (UWS)
since 2000. It is a compulsory unit of study. The notes and the experiment have undergone
various modifications over the years.
The students work in pairs and it is important that students learn to work as a group,
discuss their observations and make inferences from their data.
The aims of this experiment as presented to the students are to
(a) explain how a wave travels through a medium and recognize the properties of sinusoidal
waves,
(b) explain and apply the principle of superposition,
(c) explain how waves cause constructive and destructive interference,
(d) explain how standing waves are generated,
(e) calculate the allowed wavelengths and frequencies of standing waves and
(f) explain the variation of the speed of a wave in a string with tension and mass per unit
length of the string.
Aims (a)–(e) refer to the first part of the experiment dealing with equation (1). In
particular the emphasis on the conceptual basis of the experiment is articulated in (b), (c) and
(d). Students are not only expected to make measurements but are also expected to verify the
theoretical concepts and explain their observations. Aim (f) refers to the second part of the
experiment which deals with equation (2).
At the start of a practical session, demonstrators provide a 10 min overview of what
the experiment is about. They discuss equations (1) and (2) and how these apply to the
experimental setup in terms of modes (n = 1, n = 2, etc) using figure 1.
Furthermore, figure 2 is used to illustrate how to set up the equipment and students are
told to initially set the length at 1 m and hang a mass of 100 g. As students have prepared
before the laboratory session, this brief overview provides appropriate scaffolding for them to
confidently launch into the experiment with minimal cognitive load (Paas et al 2003).
From then on students are expected to address the aims and complete the experiment
by themselves. The role of the demonstrators is to check that students are carrying out
the experiment in an appropriate manner. The demonstrators are expected to ask questions to
ascertain that the students understand what they are doing and provide explanations if required.
If students are not on an appropriate path then demonstrators will ask questions that will guide
students towards changing their path.
In general, students begin the experiment by setting the vibrator oscillating. They hunt
for the fundamental frequency f 1 by tuning the oscillator. At this point resonance takes place
and they observe that the string oscillates with a large amplitude (corresponding to L = λ/2).
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 27

Figure 1. The first three normal modes of a string fixed at both ends.

Figure 2. Experimental setup. A string is held with a clamp at one end and a tension is applied
with masses hanging over a pulley at the other end. At a distance L from the pulley, the string is
fixed to an electromagnetic vibrator driven by an oscillator.

In order to tune the oscillator as exactly as possible to the required frequency of the string
students have to carefully manipulate both the oscillator voltage and frequency until the largest
amplitude is observed. This requires patience, technical skills in manipulating the vibrator
and the oscillator. Furthermore, students need to understand the theory to predict and produce
the desired harmonics on the string.
An example of how students can start off on an inappropriate path is as follows.
Sometimes, due to oscillator waveform distortion, students observe that what appears to
be the fundamental frequency f 1 standing wave (half-wave L = λ/2, n = 1) is set up when the
oscillator frequency is 12 f1 . Such pathways have been identified and demonstrators are aware
of these. In this instant the demonstrator would suggest the students double the frequency and
observe what happens. If the string then again vibrates at half-wave (L = λ/2, n = 1), the
demonstrator continues and asks to again double the frequency, at f 2 = f 1. After finding that
the string now vibrates at a full wavelength (L = λ, n = 2), there is clear evidence that f 1 is
the correct fundamental frequency. The skill of the demonstrator is vital in this process.
Students then measure and record the frequency of the standing waves for a series of
modes. They then calculate the mean speed and the standard deviation and interpret their
results according to the theory.
28 R Bhathal et al

In the second part of the experiment students are expected to investigate aim (e). With
the length remaining at 1 m and a 100 g mass hanging off the end, they are asked to set up
the string so that the frequency on the oscillator gives them a full wavelength (L = λ, n =
2). They are expected to measure and record the frequencies for the full wavelength vibration
with the masses of 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 g hanging off the end. Students are expected
to calculate the speed (v = f λ) corresponding to each tension, plot a graph of speed against
the square root of the tension either using MATLAB or EXCEL software. From the slope of
the resulting line they are expected to determine the mass per unit length (μ) of the string and
compare it with the value they obtain by an actual measurement of the string using a balance.
Even though uncertainties are not a focus in this particular 2 h experiment, it would be
interesting for engineering education to possibly consider an uncertainty calculation. For
example, students could be asked to compare their value of string mass per unit length found
by using the slope of the velocity versus the square root of the tension graph and by the simple
measurement of the string’s mass and length.
At the conclusion of the experiment they write a brief report of two to three pages. The
report is based on a specific format that students use for all their practicals in this course. They
are expected to address criteria that are provided before hand. They discuss and comment on
the results they obtained to test the predictions from the theory.
About 12% of the class who finish the experiment early have the opportunity to explore
the consequences of manipulating the variables in different ways. For example, students can
change the mass of the string, the length of the string and the tension in the string. They can
also explore the relationship between the number of antinodes and the frequency or the length
of the string. They do take this opportunity which gives them an experience of an open-ended
experiment.

4. Use of the ACELL approach

The experiment was subjected to testing procedures described in the ACELL Guidelines
and Procedures document [10] which are designed to demonstrate the transferability of the
experiment and to evaluate it from both physics and educational perspectives. The educational
analysis of the experiment is given in this section. We first present the ACELL educational
template that was briefly mentioned in section 2. Secondly, we provide brief results from
the ACELL workshop. Lastly, we describe data collection and results for students in the
proponent’s home institution.

4.1. The ACELL educational template

The ACELL template has several sections. We focus on the section on educational analysis
which has the following three sections, namely Theoretical and conceptual knowledge,
Scientific and practical skills and Generic skills. These are shown in table 1.
The key feature of the template is that it forces alignment between learning outcomes,
processes used to obtain the learning outcomes and assessment.

4.2. The ACELL workshop

A total of 52 participants assembled on the day and each did two out of the eight experiments,
one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Multiple sets of each experiment were available
and they worked in pairs. They completed a Likert scale survey with 15 questions (see [9] for
survey items) for each experiment. A brief for participants was to determine if the ACELL
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 29

Table 1. ACELL educational template for the standing waves experiment.

Learning outcomes Process Assessment

What will students learn? How will students learn it? How will staff know students
have learnt it? How will
students know they have learnt
it?
Theoretical and conceptual knowledge
Students will use the theory that Students will work in pairs to During the experiment students
is taught in the lectures to ascertain they have obtained the are encouraged to interact with
observe and measure the correct allowed wavelengths the demonstrator to find out if
allowed wavelengths and and frequencies to work out the they are going in the right
frequencies at the various speed of the waves direction. Students have to
harmonics to calculate the write a report which includes
speed of the waves generated in their observations and analysis
the string of the data and comments on
their results with respect to
theory
Students will investigate the Students will record the During the experiment the
variation of wave speed with frequencies for a full demonstrator will query the
tension wavelength vibration for a students as to their
number of tensions in the string understanding of how wave
speed varies with tension in the
string. Students have to
calculate the mass/unit length
of the string from their
experiments and compare it
with what they found from
actually weighing the string on
a balance
Students will learn about the By observing the various The demonstrator will query
nature of waves and wave waveforms that are generated at the students as to their
phenomenon that is taught in various frequencies, by understanding of the
the lectures. They will also observing and measuring the fundamental properties of
learn about the fundamental amplitudes, frequencies, waves, such as wavelength,
properties of sinusoidal waves wavelengths and speeds of frequency, wave speed,
waves resonance, etc. This will allow
the demonstrator to find out
whether the student is familiar
with the topic under
investigation
Scientific and practical skills
Experimentally students will Observe waves with different When students are able to
learn how waves are generated amplitudes and frequencies recognize the various
and travel through a medium waveforms it will indicate they
have mastered the necessary
skills to do the experiment
See how the principle of Observe standing waves and Correctly identifying the
superposition is used to recognize the various various harmonics in order to
generate standing waves and harmonics calculate the various variables
when resonance takes place in the experiment. Students are
requested to confirm that they
have identified the various
harmonics correctly before
moving on with the experiment
30 R Bhathal et al

Table 1. (Continued.)

Learning outcomes Process Assessment

Students will learn to identify Observing the standing waves Identifying the correct allowed
the allowed wavelengths and at the correct frequencies and wavelengths and frequencies
frequencies wavelengths. They will have to and calculating the speeds of
manipulate the oscillator the waves
frequencies to obtain the
allowed states
Students learn how constructive Observing the nodes and Successfully identifying the
and destructive interference antinodes on the string positions of the nodes and
takes place antinodes
Generic skills
Ability to work in a group Group members are required to The demonstrators will interact
discuss how to set up the with the students to ascertain
experiment and divide the work that they are working as a team
appropriately amongst
themselves
Ability to compare their results Discuss their results with a Evaluation (oral and/or
with standard values or values demonstrator to ascertain the written) of the quality of the
obtained by an alternative meaning of their results with quantitative data obtained by
method and analyse the respect to theory the students and their
significance of their results qualitative explanations will
indicate their level of
understanding
Enhance communication by Clearly express their work in a Evaluation of the written report
submitting a written report written report according to
guidelines of writing a lab
report

educational template for the experiment was aligned and if the experiment did what was
articulated in the template.
A total of 14 participants returned surveys on the experiment on standing waves. The
intent is for these results to be used in a comparative manner only and not through inferential
statistics. For example, figure 3 shows how this experiment is compared with the other
experiments on three items. In all cases the 14 participants expected students to have better
experiences with the experiment on standing waves than the aggregate of all the experiments.
The surveys were completed with the intent of the experiment as outlined in the ACELL
educational template and what the participants had experienced while doing the experiment.
The survey also had a set of open-ended questions. By far the predominant themes
were ‘This is a very straightforward version of this type of experiment, easily completed
within the time’, ‘It was a pleasant experiment to do—not rushed and time for thinking,
allowed for discussion and reflection’ ‘Enjoyed this one. Was a bit of fun’. In terms of
weaknesses and what could be improved, seven participants wrote comments along the line
of ‘Better equipment’. On the other hand, the last question inviting other comments received
the following ‘Excellent equipment, allowed for discussion and reflection’. The responses did
indeed identify the key design feature of the experiment, basically to keep the equipment and
measurements simple so as to manage students’ cognitive resources.
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 31

I expect that completing the experiment will effectively help students to develop their
70%
theoretical and conceptual knowledge
60%
Experiment UTS-7 (n = 14)
50%
Aggregate (n = 89)
40%

30%

20%

10%

0%
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly
Disagree

I expect that students will find this experiment interesting


45%
40% Experiment UTS-7 (n = 14)
35% Aggregate (n = 89)
30%
25%
20%
15%
10%
5%
0%
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly
Disagree
I believe that the laboratory notes, when supported with guidance
from demonstrators and other resources, will provide sufficient
60% support for students as they learn

50%
Experiment UTS-7 (n = 14)
40%
Aggregate (n = 89)
30%

20%

10%

0%
Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly
Disagree

Figure 3. A comparison of responses from ACELL workshop participants. The lighter shade
represents what the participants indicated for all the other experiments done on the day. The darker
shade represents what the participants indicated for the standing wave experiment.
(This figure is in colour only in the electronic version)

4.3. Data collection method

Data were collected using the ACELL Student Learning Experience (ASLE) survey. This was
distributed to 89 engineering students who had undertaken the experiment at the University
of Western Sydney in Semester 1, 2007. The processes followed those that were stated in
the ethics application. The completion of the survey was voluntary and the responses were
anonymous. The response rate was 81%.
The ASLE instrument includes 14 items. A summary of the items is included in
table 2 along with the scoring. 12 of the statements probe student’s perceptions of aspects
of the experiment (such as interest, skill development, etc). The last two items concern the
32 R Bhathal et al

Table 2. Summary of the student feedback responses to the ASLE items.

Standard % Agree or
Number Item Mean∗ deviation strongly agree

1 This experiment has helped me to develop my 1.01 0.74 81


data interpretation skills
2 This experiment has helped me to develop my 1 0.69 83
laboratory skills
3 I found this to be an interesting experiment 1.02 0.76 75
4 It was clear to me how this laboratory exercise 0.59 0.93 52
would be assessed
5 It was clear to me what I was expected to learn 0.62 0.86 63
from completing this experiment
6 Completing this experiment has increased my 0.86 0.81 72
understanding of physics
7 Sufficient background information, of an 0.66 0.67 63
appropriate standard, is provided in the
introduction
8 The demonstrators offered effective support and 0.96 0.92 65
guidance
9 The experimental procedure was clearly 0.79 0.84 65
explained in the lab manual or notes
10 I can see the relevance of this experiment to my 1.09 0.71 85
engineering studies
11 Working in a team to complete this experiment 1.18 1.01 75
was beneficial
12 The experiment provided me with the opportunity 1.04 0.85 82
to take responsibility for my own learning
13 I found that the time available to complete this +0.53
experiment was
14 Overall, as a learning experience, I would rate this +2.7
experiment as
Note: For items 1 to 12, a +2 (strongly agree) to −2 (strongly disagree) scale was used, with a 0
(neutral) midpoint—for these items. The ideal response is +2. For item 13, a +2 (way too much time)
to −2 (nowhere near enough time) scale was used, with a 0 (about right) midpoint—for this item. The
ideal response is 0. For item 14, a +4 (outstanding) to 0 (worthless) scale has been used, with a 2
(worthwhile) midpoint—for this item. The ideal response is +4.

time available to carry out the experiment and an overall rating of the experiment as a learning
experience.
In addition to the above there were three open-response items:

(a) Did you enjoy doing the experiment? Why or why not?
(b) What did you think was the main lesson to be learnt from the experiment?
(c) What aspects of the experiment did you find the most enjoyable and interesting?

4.4. Student responses from the ASLE instrument

The student feedback responses to the 14 items listed on the ASLE instrument are given in
table 2. The means and standard deviations of the responses as well as the percentage of
respondents in broad agreement (agree or strongly agree) are shown in the table.
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 33

4.5. Student responses to the open-ended questions

A selection of the responses to the open-response items are given below. The majority of the
responses were very positive.

4.5.1. Did you enjoy the experiment? Why or why not?


S1: I enjoyed the experiment. It enabled me to understand the concept of standing waves,
as I am a visual learner.
S2: I enjoyed the experiment because it could draw a clear picture for me about the topic.
My level of understanding has increased after this laboratory.
S3: It was an enjoyable experience which helped me understand the concepts behind it.
S4: Yes, because it helped me understand the theory in a practical way.
S5: It allowed me to understand waves and the calculations behind them. The laboratory
gives a chance to see first hand just how standing waves can be produced and how changes
in tension (T) and frequency (f ) affect the waves.
S6: Yes, because I can see how this is useful for engineers.
S7: Yes. A practical and interactive way of viewing the applications of physics.
S8: Yes, due to working as a team which is always fun. Learning in a more practical way.

4.5.2. What did you think was the main lesson to be learnt from the experiment?
S1: The properties of waves.
S2: Fundamentals and properties of waves.
S3: To gain an understanding of standing waves and calculations.
S4: It teaches me the practical application of all that is learnt in lectures.
S5: To further our understanding of waves.
S6: Properties of standing waves.
S7: The effects of standing waves.
S8: To know how to use the equipment.

4.5.3. What aspects of the experiment did you find the most enjoyable and interesting?
S1: Learning the correct technical terms associated with waves.
S2: Recording results and making calculations.
S3: Reading the wavelengths.
S4: Measuring the standing waves.
S5: Trialling and tuning of frequency for a desired number of modes.
S6: The practical and calculations made me feel smart.
S7: The determining of frequencies by watching the standing waves take shape.
S8: Teamwork.

5. Discussion of results and conclusions

An examination of the data shows that overall the students’ experiences to this experiment
were positive and they agreed that it was a valuable experiment to perform. Over 80% (mean
rating +1.01) of the students agreed that the experiment provided them with an opportunity to
take responsibility for their own learning. This is pleasing to note as it confirms the approach
that has been taken in the learning and teaching of practicals in engineering physics. Over
70% of the students agreed that the experiment increased their understanding of physics while
34 R Bhathal et al

85% of the students could see the relevance of the experiment to their engineering studies.
This is an interesting finding as quite a number of first year engineering students question the
relevance of physics to their engineering education.
The response of the students to teamwork was positive and over 75% found teamwork to
be beneficial. Working in teams is important to engineers and it is important that they learn
the skills of working in teams right from their first year at university. The engineering projects
they will be undertaking in their third and fourth years demand that they work in teams. The
accumulation of teamwork skills from their first year will be of tremendous value not only in
their later years at university but also in their working life as engineers.
Of equal importance were their responses to laboratory work. Over 80% of the students
agreed that the experiment was useful in developing their data interpretation skills and also in
developing their laboratory skills. This is an important aspect of the learning experience for
would be engineers as they have to do hands-on work when they enter industry. A majority
(over 75%) of the students found the experiment both enjoyable and interesting. This is also
confirmed by the qualitative data. Studies have shown that interest and enjoyment have a
strong motivational aspect on learning (Hidi and Renninger 2006). It is thus important that
an experiment should trigger interest and maintain it once it is triggered. The standing wave
experiment did just that. In fact, the qualitative data showed that students found the experiment
useful in improving their knowledge of waves and wave phenomena. They also enjoyed
manipulating the equipment to get the correct results. It is interesting that the participants of
the ACELL workshop who were academic staff, demonstrators and undergraduate students
had also noted this feature.
With regard to the guidance provided by the background information, it was intended that
students had to ensure that they came to the class with adequate preparation to conduct the
experiment. The onus was on them to find out before the practical what was expected of them
in conducting the experiment.
One tentative reason for why the students were able to plan and carry out their experiment
is that the equipment is simple and transparent. A tendency for physicists would be to clutter
the experiment with more gadgets (for example the cathode ray oscilloscope and a feedback
system) because we see the beauty in the more complex physics, which is beyond most
students’ current understanding. In educational terms this is called managing cognitive load
(Paas et al 2003).
In summary, the purpose of the experiment was to create an enjoyable and interesting
experiment which enabled them to learn the nature and properties of waves and wave
phenomena. The experiment succeeded in doing this and also providing them with an
opportunity of taking responsibility for their own learning. However, there was a mismatch
between assessment goals and student expectations. This is not a reflection of a weakness in
the procedures and the philosophy of getting students to be responsible for their learning. It
is important that the expectations of what is required from the students by the demonstrators
should be more clearly specified. We are in the process of undertaking a project to train
demonstrators to address issues such as these.

Acknowledgments

We thank the first year engineering physics students at University of Western Sydney for
participating in this survey as well as Jeff Scott, the laboratory manager and the demonstrators
for assistance in conducting the experiment. We acknowledge that the data collection was
undertaken under the supervision of the ACELL Directors and pursuant to the ACELL human
ethics approval. Associate Professor Les Kirkup and Dr Kathryn Wilson facilitated the ACELL
Educational analysis of a first year engineering physics experiment on standing waves 35

workshop in which this experiment was trialled. Support has been provided by the Australian
Learning and Teaching Council, an initiative of the Australian Government Department of
Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

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