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Cornell University
LASSP -  Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics

Cornell Laboratory for Atomic and Solid State Physics

Natasha Holmes focuses on how to measure critical thinking in lab pedagogy

Walk into the lab section of any science course and you’ll see students busy with beakers, microscopes, calculators and more. But what’s really going on in their minds?

“Although one may think that labs are inherently active, there’s some research showing the traditional ways that labs are structured – following rote procedures to get a proscribed outcome at the end – means students may be active with their hands but they’re not really active with their brains,” says Natasha Holmes, assistant professor of physics.

But no one really knows. While there have been lots of studies showing how active learning helps students in big lecture courses, there’s not much research on lab pedagogy. That’s where Holmes comes in. She’s the first researcher who focuses on educational practices hired within a discipline as a tenure-track professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Using a recent Active Learning Initiative (ALI) grant, she and her team will redesign all lab courses for two introductory physics sequences.

Holmes also has a National Science Foundation grant with Carl Weiman of Stanford University to design an assessment for learning in labs. She asks, “Especially when we think about trying to teach students how to make sense of data and models and think critically and have them do some experiment, how do you test that? How do you actually measure whether what you’re doing is helpful?” The assessment’s goal, she explains, is to measure how well students assimilated the information during lab and can reproduce it in another context.

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