Reviving Creativity in Our Introductory Physics Labs

Reviving Creativity in Our Introductory Physics Labs

Mats Selen, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, describes innovations that spark creativity in physics labs.


January 30, 2017 -
3:00pm to 4:00pm


Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology, 791 Atlantic Drive NW. Atlanta, GA 30332





University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Physics Colloquium

Approaching a question without fear, coming up with an idea, designing a test to see if the idea might be right, revising the idea (or the question), and trying again when your results take you someplace unexpected. These behaviors are shared and valued by most physicists, yet for a variety of reasons - some practical and some historical - these are often not the behaviors that we encourage in our introductory physics labs.

We have developed a portable wireless lab system with the goal of putting simple yet powerful tools in the hands of every student, and we are piloting a new design-based approach to our introductory physics labs based on this tool.

Our students invent experiments and acquire data, both in and out of the classroom, and share their data with each other and with instructors, using an integrated cloud-based repository. This new approach is allowing us to shift the focus of our introductory labs toward creativity, design, sense-making, and communication.

I will describe this project and present some encouraging preliminary results. 


Mats Selen is an extraordinary teacher. His decision to accept a university position, rather than to remain a permanent staff researcher at a major particle physics facility, was motivated by his commitment to science education. Since coming to UIUC, he has been a prime mover behind the massive curriculum revision of the calculus-based introductory physics courses (Physics 211-214), and he was the first lecturer in the new sequence. He developed an undergraduate "discovery" course where freshmen create their own physics demonstrations — designed for grade-school children — to introduce then to the fun and excitement of physics. He also started the Physics Van, our department's award-winning community outreach program and is a regular on local morning television as "The Whys Guy." 

Selens earned a B.S. in Physics from the University of Guelph (1982), an M.Sc. in Physics from Guelph (1983), and an M.A. in Physics from Princeton University in 1985. He received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton in 1989. He was a research associate at the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) at Cornell University from 1989 to 1993. He joined the Department of Physics at Illinois in 1993 as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 1997 and to full professor in 2001.