University of Rochester

Innovative Computer Lab to Boost Students' Science Know-how

January 13, 1998

The University of Rochester will inaugurate an unusual computer classroom next week that's intended to boost students' appreciation and understanding of science -- especially those whose primary field of study lies outside the sciences. The facility is designed to make undergraduates' experiments in physics and engineering easier by linking 20 computers with such equipment as light sensors, motion detectors, video analysis software, temperature sensors, and even a track for simulated accidents between small carts.

The University's construction of the classroom is a key part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored initiative aimed at relating science to everyday life for all University undergraduates. The program offers a handful of courses that marry disciplines as divergent as literature and optics and mechanical engineering and art history.

Thomas LeBlanc, dean of the College faculty, will join students in Frank Wolfs' "Physics by Inquiry" course next Monday as they get their first taste of the new lab's equipment.

"We're giving students a feel for the scientific method here, while trying to minimize the amount of time they have to spend on calculations and other drudgery," says Wolfs, associate professor of physics and astronomy and designer of the facility. "Students can spend all their class time on experiments and leave the number-crunching to computers."

Wolfs' course will use computers to illustrate key physical concepts to students who might otherwise never set foot in a physics classroom. Next week, in their first meeting, the 12 undergraduates enrolled in the class will attempt to act out computer-generated graphs of time versus distance, shuffling to and fro before motion sensors hooked up to their computers.

"The computers are actually a fairly small part of the story in this lab," Wolfs says. "We have a great deal of experimental equipment that can be hooked up to them, and each pair of students has a large counter next to their work station on which to conduct experiments."

After completing their fancy footwork for the motion sensors, Wolfs' students will study velocity and the physics of collisions using small carts on a track hooked up to their computers. They'll examine the physics of space shuttle launches by using software to analyze videos of NASA take-offs, and will assess the physics of their own motions by analyzing videos of themselves. The class will also use thermometers hooked up to the computers to measure how objects lose or gain heat over time.

"Physics by Inquiry" is the only University course scheduled to use the new classroom during the spring semester, but Wolfs expects that at least five other instructors may take advantage of the facility for their courses within a year.