This project is developing, evaluating, and disseminating an innovative online approach to interactive laboratory learning for introductory physics courses. SmartLab allows students to measure things in the real world by facilitating hands-on experiments anywhere - in their home, in their dorm, in their classroom - guided and evaluated by the SmartLab learning software and online database. At the heart of the SmartLab approach is a small and inexpensive wireless probe, developed in collaboration with private industry, which has the ability to rapidly perform accurate measurements of displacement, velocity, acceleration, force, magnetic fields, and potential differences. These data are sent over a wireless link to a PC running the SmartLab application which also communicates with an online database to retrieve carefully designed lesson plans. The software guides students through the lesson, recording and analyzing the data they acquire, and provides real-time feedback on the student's performance of the hands-on activities as well as the student's answers to questions embedded in the lesson.

A primary focus of NSF support for this project is a physics education research effort to practically optimize the SmartLab approach while studying the pros and cons of differing methods of utilization. Researchers are determining how the retention of key physics concepts is impacted by hands-on SmartLab activities, as they are performed at nearly the same time as the conceptual introduction. Such research plays a key role in building a sound pedagogical footing for this new approach in universities, colleges and high schools.

SmartLab enables a complete hands-on laboratory experience for students to perform at a time and place that maximizes the learning experience, whether this is before a lecture, part of a weekly homework assignment, or during an existing lab period. In addition to providing a powerful tool for traditional physics courses, SmartLab has tremendous potential for courses which currently do not offer a hands-on experience, such as those taken by students online, or courses where budget or space constraints preclude a lab. The inherently scalable nature of the SmartLab approach, combined with the fact that it can be adopted by faculty members with a very modest investment in time and resources, means its impact on American physics education may become significant on a short timescale.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
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Duncan E. McBride
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
United States
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