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None Of My Lab Data Makes Any Sense Learning To Interpret And Report Experimental Results

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Improving ME instructional laboratories

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.963.1 - 11.963.10



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Paper Authors


Jed Lyons University of South Carolina

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At the University of South Carolina, Jed Lyons is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He has developed laboratory experiments for freshman engineering, engineering materials, measurements and instrumentation, and mechanical systems. He currently serves on the advisory board for the Center for Teaching Excellence, and is Chair of the Faculty Committee on Instructional Development Director, Director of the Center for Engineering and Computing Education, and Principal Investigator of a NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education award. With ASEE, he has held leadership positions in the Mechanical Engineering Division and K-12 Engineering and Pre-College Outreach Division and serves as USC's Campus Representative. Jed is interested in how we learn to be engineers.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

None of My Lab Data Makes Any Sense: Learning to Interpret and Report Experimental Results


Many laboratory courses are designed to illustrate to students that the theory taught in lecture is correct. If experimental data doesn’t match a theory, students tend believe that that there is something wrong with their data. To compensate for their “bad data”, sometimes students may be provided with “good data” from the instructor, or they may report that it is their fault that the data doesn’t match the theory and simply cite “human error” as the cause of the discrepancy. Such experiences do little to help the student develop critical thinking skills or the ability to their own design experiments. This paper illustrates how the concept of “learning from mistakes” can be used as instructional strategy in engineering laboratory courses. Three experiments from a junior-level mechanical engineering course on Measurements and Instrumentation at the University of South Carolina are provided as examples of this instructional approach. Topically, the experiments deal with the average force that humans apply when squeezing an object between their thumb and forefinger, how an internal combustion engine’s piston position is related to the crank angle, and how to conduct a thermodynamic energy balance on an air conditioner. These and other experiments in the course are set up so that students encounter problems that force them to think critically, improving their ability to design experiments. The effect of having students rewrite graded laboratory reports to improve technical writing skills is also discussed.


The learning objectives of the Measurements and Instrumentation laboratory course taken by our mechanical engineering students are to design and conduct experiments, explain the operating principles of common instrumentation, use statistics to analyze experimental results, use experimental results to evaluate theoretical models, organize and write laboratory reports, and organize and give an oral presentation. Historically, the course included a large number of laboratory experiments that were performed every semester the course was offered. That format gave the students considerable experience conducting experiments, but addressed the other course objectives to lesser extent.

For example, teaching students how to organize and write laboratory reports was difficult because many students had ready access to lab reports that were written in previous semesters. Students were not forced to think about what they should include in their laboratory report or how to structure it so that the experimental results are conveyed clearly, because they had example reports to follow or copy. These students were not forced to think critically while comparing their results to a theory, because former students had done that for them.

To mitigate the issues associated with old lab reports being available to students, the instructor has taken the approach to develop new experiments every semester. Although the number of experiments was reduced from ten to five, the workload of creating five fully-functional and debugged experiments every semester became significant. Often, the quickly drafted laboratory

Lyons, J. (2006, June), None Of My Lab Data Makes Any Sense Learning To Interpret And Report Experimental Results Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1411

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