IT-related Learning in the Third Year Teaching Laboratories
(left) Teresa Wang uses a computer-based spectrometer to measure the output of a NdYAG laser (right) Experimental MRI images obtained by Ming Kong

An important role of the teaching laboratories is to aid in the understanding of basic principles of physics. The laboratories provide an interface between the content of lecture courses and the real world; and modern information technology (computers, world-wide-web, application software) have been used to enhance our students’ learning experience.

There are several ways computers have been incorporated into the laboratory:

  • data processing and analysis systems
  • interfacing to experiments – in the form of
    computerised data logging systems
  • using simulations alongside real experiments
  • access to various relevant resources via the WWW
  • report preparation, including word-processing and
    graphical display of data

Teaching within the laboratory has evolved to make use of computers to enhance the learning environment. The ability of the computer to immediately display and manipulate data makes possible timely feedback for student learning. Indeed, some of our experiments would not be viable learning exercises without the incorporation of a computer. Examples include chaotic motion, scanning tunneling microscopy and Fourier transform spectrometry. In addition, computerised data acquisition can improve the reliability and accuracy of the measurements made by students. Combined with the range of other tools available (such as graphing, statistical analysis, curve-fitting), computers free students to devote more time to interpretation, critical evaluation and assigning “meaning” to their experiments.

Modern measurement systems, as used in industry and research, demand that students be more computer literate. An example in medical physics is the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) experiment where students use tomographic (3D reconstruction) imaging techniques similar to those on the million dollar MRI machines used by specialist medical consultants. In another experiment, students use a scanning electron microscope to record images of specimens. The images are stored on the university network and are then available for analysis and incorporation into reports and presentations.

The optoelectronics/photonics laboratory has, over the last two years, acquired state-of-the-art optical fibre equipment (sources, detectors and spectrometers), which operates through built-in computerised control panels and computer communication protocols. This industry standard equipment allows the study of the latest generation of 1500nm infra-red laser-based optical fibre communications. It enables students to understand the physics of the fibre technologies which are currently being rolled out across the country.

Barry Perczuk and Patrick McMilllan

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