What to Know if You’re Teaching Physics Labs Remotely

illustration of planning an online course
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Giulia Forsythe/Flickr

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, professors had to pivot their lab courses quickly —sometimes in a matter of hours—to work remotely. Physicist and physics education researcher JILA Fellow Heather Lewandowski began getting questions from instructors around the country: how do you teach a laboratory class when you can’t be in the lab?

Lewandowski received an NSF RAPID Grant to answer this question, and did what scientists do best: she gathered data. She received 106 survey responses from professors nationally and internationally, covering 129 physics education courses. These classes ranged from introductory to more advanced level coursework. Her study was published on arXiv on July 2.

It’s important to note that these courses were not intended to be taught remotely, Lewandowski pointed out. There are instructors who regularly work on virtual platforms, but this study looked at lab courses that had to switch to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While there were numerous challenges to going remote, “I think we had a unique opportunity to learn some things that will help us when we get back to in-person classes,” Lewandowski noted.

Here are some key lessons for those planning courses in a virtual platform:

Re-evaluate your learning goals and encourage self-guided inquiry

If your physics lab needs to taught remotely, this is a good opportunity to re-evaluate what you want students to get from the class, and try something new. With little time to prepare, some instructors this spring changed the learning goals for their classes.

“Some of them were asking themselves for the first time, ‘What are my learning goals?’’’ Lewandowski said. “There are a lot of parts of experimental physics that have to do with design, modeling, communication, writing. And these in particular are a little bit easier to achieve outside of the lab than working with equipment.”

One instructor was able to get away from prescriptive lab modules and let students pursue their own self-guided inquiries, Lewandowski added.

“Some students found that they had more opportunity for agency. They were able to explore their own research questions, or control the timing of their own learning. So, I think that is another thing that we really don't want to lose when they come back in person,” she said.

Replace the lab with online simulations, take-home lab kits, remote-controlled lab equipment, or what your students have on hand

Physics lab course instructors use tools students have at home to teach physics concepts. 

Image Credit
Michael F. J. Fox

Lab work is inherently hands-on, but computer simulations can help replicate some parts of the lab. Online simulations like PhET allowed students to work through lab activities from their computers. A few instructors found ways for students to use what they had at hand to understand physics concepts, such as using the camera on their phone to learn about optics.

But not all students have equal access to these things, Lewandowski cautioned; don’t assume every student will have a smart phone, easy access to a computer, or a fast, reliable internet connection. For introductory courses, many instructors had better success with home lab kits that contained simple equipment and supplies—a few even delivered them to students at home.

For more advanced courses that need specialized, expensive equipment, instructors took advantage of laboratory equipment that could be controlled remotely, or were able to have a teaching assistant or professor run the experiment for students via web conferencing.

Small groups, Zoom breakout rooms help students collaborate

Learning is a social enterprise, and students missed working with their lab work groups. However, some instructors found that using breakout rooms on Zoom and creating smaller working groups helped students collaborate remotely.

“Science is not an individualistic type of endeavor. It requires a community and a team,” Lewandowski said. “And I think that's going to be a struggle over this next year, to build that community when everybody is remote.”

Have patience, empathy, and know you’re not alone

University procedures and recommendations are still changing to respond to the ongoing pandemic. Instructors around the world may find themselves back in the classroom in some places, working entirely remotely, or a hybrid of the two.

Whatever mode you’re working in, there are resources available to help you, Lewandowski said. She is also President of the Advanced Lab Physics Association (ALPhA), a professional society of physics instructors in labs, which is curating resources and advice for instructors working remotely.

Just remember, this is an unprecedented situation, so be patient with yourself and your students, Lewandowski said. Things will go wrong, and that’s okay.

“I think a little flexibility and empathy goes a long way,” she added. “You're not alone in this.”

Written by Rebecca Jacobson


The coronavirus pandemic upended schools in the spring of 2020, sending students and faculty home. This rapidly changed how instructors handled laboratory physics courses. With a NSF RAPID grant, JILA Fellow Heather Lewandowski asked instructors what worked—and what didn't—as they moved their lab courses online.

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