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A Laboratory Structured to Encourage Thoughtful, Task-Based Experimentation

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies: Laboratory Pedagogy

Tagged Division

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Laura A. Garrison York College of Pennsylvania

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Dr. Laura Garrison received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas and her M.S. in Operations Research from Stanford University. She then worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories and AT&T Federal Systems before deciding to pursue her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Penn State University in the area of experimental fluid mechanics associated with the artificial heart. After graduating, she worked at Voith Hydro for five years in the area of Computational Fluid Mechanics. For the last thirteen years, she has been a professor at York College of Pennsylvania where she teaches thermal sciences, freshmen design courses, and computer programming.

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Timothy J. Garrison York College of Pennsylvania

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Timothy Garrison is Chair of the Engineering and Computer Science Department at York College of Pennsylvania.

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In the classic laboratory format, students follow detailed instructions to perform a lab and then turn in a formal report the following week. Typically, the students blindly collect data with the goal of finishing as quickly as possible. The night before the lab is due, they attempt to do the analysis, answer the questions, and write up the report. Due to lack of understanding, many tend to complete calculations incorrectly, resulting in inappropriate conclusions. Since they waited until the night before it is due, they don’t have time to ask for help. During this process, many students either learn very little, or worse, they reinforce bad assumptions. To give students feedback, the instructor grades reports, spending excessive time finding errors. If the students are not required to revise the report, this feedback can go unheeded. Over the past few years, a Thermodynamics / Fluid Mechanics laboratory was gradually restructured to improve understanding. Much of the analysis was moved from post-lab to pre-lab, culminating in the Fall 2014 format which required the students to do almost all of the laboratory work with fake data and keep revising the work until it was completely correct. They had to get the lab 100% correct before performing the experiment. Because students were not allowed to submit incorrect work, they got help from the instructor and most of the grading time was replaced with student-instructor interaction. This course structure drastically improved the quality of the students work and minimized grading time, but one-on-one student instruction time became overwhelming. It also did little to improve the in-lab data collection process or reinforce the methods for real-life experimentation. For Fall 2015, the structure was reworked, in part to incorporate experimentation for the purpose of discovery. The pre-lab assignments that needed to be revised until correct were reduced in length and complexity, and each experiment was extended to two weeks. Instead of giving fake data, the first week involved the whole class completing a worksheet while the instructor guided a demonstration of the equipment, went over concepts, and collected some data, as in an inquiry-based lecture/lab format. The students then completed analysis using the collected data. Before the second week, the students were given a task targeted to a specific audience, for example, a CEO needs X, or you are to explain Y to a 5-year-old. The task required them to develop the experiment themselves. There were no step-by-step procedures. The lab reports were then used to fulfill the task as targeted to the audience rather than to report just methods, results, etc. The paper presents details on the both the 2014 and 2015 class structures with example assignments and reports. It also compares report grades from previous semesters to the grades from the 2014 and 2015 formats. Results of a student survey and a concept quiz, as well as various observations about student performance, pitfalls, and planned modifications are also included.

Garrison, L. A., & Garrison, T. J. (2016, June), A Laboratory Structured to Encourage Thoughtful, Task-Based Experimentation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26339

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