PhysLab Project at LUMS-SSE: Developing Physics Education
Courtesy: Department of Physics, SSE-LUMS
Just as experience begins with sense perception, real understanding of science begins with experiments. This makes the role of laboratories very crucial in the field of science education. Realising the pedagogical needs of the time, Physlab was set up in 2007 as a benchmark teaching lab at LUMS School of Science and Engineering (SSE).
The venture of developing a modern physics lab at LUMS-SSE started as a part of a greater project of setting up a world class SSE in Pakistan. The project was undertaken as a public-private partnership between Higher Education Commission (HEC) and LUMS. The PhysLab project was headed by Dr. Muhammad Sabieh Anwar, who embarked on the venture along with several capable physicists and engineers.
The lab course was offered as a first year BS level course in Experimental Physics to all the undergraduate students who could later choose to become electrical engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists or physicists. The contents of the lab included the fundamentals of diverse topics in physics, such as electronic circuits, lasers, heat transfer, thermodynamics, radioactivity, vibrations, rotational mechanics and data acquisition. The materialisation, however, was not easy, given the diversity of the underlying physics with the emphasis on cutting costs and promoting self-dependency.
The very first thing that was taken on was to establish a small-scale manufacturing facility for laboratory equipment and scientific apparatus. For this purpose, a workshop was set up inside the Physics Department, which initially comprised of basic hand and power tools: mechanical tools and a lathe machine made at the Pakistan Tool Factory. This enabled in-house fabrication of simple mechanical parts. Metal housings, parts made of steel, aluminium and brass, and metal fixtures could be then easily made inside the workshop. Later, as the funding improved, a circuit board etching machine and a computerised turning centre were also added to the facility. This allowed for the production of precision mechanical parts and delicate electronic printed circuit boards and helped expand the research prospects for the students and faculty.
The workshop facility of PhysLab now provides its skills and services to others departments of the School as well as limited services to the industry, generating small sums of revenue. It has gained the status of a training centre where students learn and master the skills of craftsmanship and technical manufacturing of scientific equipment.
After an exhaustive survey of the local market was performed, the option of importing materials from abroad was employed which was in-line with the quality intended by the PhysLab.
Most of the home-made apparatuses were made from cheap and readily available materials, such as plexi-glass, aluminium, wood, steel etc. It was, however, made sure that the simplicity of the developed parts did not compromise the learning objectives of the experiments. For this purpose, an appropriate organisation of the conceptual content of the experiments was studied and developed from scratch.
After a hard work of over a year entailing multiple revisions and improvements in our experiments, hardware refinements, and a scrupulous effort in writing fresh laboratory manuals, PhysLab was ready to offer a richly organised line-up of freshman experiments in 2008. The experiments on magnetic phase transitions, latent heat of vaporisation of liquid nitrogen, heat transfer, Newton’s law of cooling, vibrations on a string, resonance and thermodynamics of a heat engine are elegant examples of economical and in-house designs of teaching experiments. A list of these experiments along with their lab manuals, recommended readings and sample results can be found on the PhysLab website, which is a useful resource. In this way, the contribution of PhysLab to experimental physics education is also open for others to benefit. Several of these experiments have been published in journals of physics education such as American Journal of Physics, European Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher.
In 2010, the advanced physics laboratories were established, again vastly relying on indigenous research and development. Experiments span a variety of concepts, from heat waves and nonlinear dynamics to magneto-optics and X-ray fluorescence, Brownian Motion Microscopy (BMM) and Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs), which are a clear indication of the immense indigenous potential for home-grown research and contribution to science education.
With the passage of time, several research labs have sprouted carrying out experimental investigations that work both to further the frontiers of research at physics and close the loop by assisting and nurturing the teaching labs even fuller, especially through advanced lab projects that demand a great deal of original research-oriented ideas and projects.
In 2010, a milestone was achieved by the PhysLab, when Physics Lab at Institute of Space Technology (IST), Islamabad, was set up. It brought some valuable revenue. Again in 2011, the experiments developed at PhysLab were sold to Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI) for their physics laboratory. This clearly indicates a growing respect for in-house and indigenous development activity in the country.
Today, several research labs, such as in optics, solid state physics and radiation physics are functioning in the Department. All of them have been developed and are maintained by staff trained in PhysLab.