Newly renovated science lab spaces bring learning into real world

Two labs in the Petrie Science and Engineering Building officially reopened on Thursday, Oct. 11 after undergoing renovations to update the equipment and layout to give students a better learning experience.

From left: Facilities Manager Doriano D’Angelo, Physics and Astronomy Department Chair Marshall McCall and Interim Faculty of Science Dean Esaias Janse van Rensburg

Used by second-year physics, astronomy, biophysics and engineering students, who previously had to deal with outdated equipment, the labs in Rooms 210 and 220 will now allow for more inquiry-based investigations and integrated peer learning. Concerns about the lab space, equipment and limited opportunities for exploration were raised by students.

Matthew George in one of the newly renovated labs. Photo by Neil McCall

“The engineering students, having been treated to a great physics lab experience in first year, will now have a similar-quality experience in their second year,” says assistant lecturer Matthew George. “The updated labs will also allow us to have all students perform the same exercises in the same week, something that would have taken many weeks in the past.”

That means the lab exercises can now be synchronized with lecture material in concurrent theory courses, which will improve how students learn. Their lab experiences will now reflect the realities of modern experimental physics and will allow students to think outside the box.

“We provide practical experiences for our majors that are among the strongest and most rewarding you can find at an Ontario university,” says Marshall McCall, Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “What makes us especially unique is what I call the two jewels in our crown, namely the laser physics lab or Optech Lab and the Allan I. Carswell Observatory.”

With more than $260,000 spent on new equipment alone, not including funding for renovating the space and for computing equipment, that bar has been set even higher. In the electricity and magnetism lab, that new equipment includes oscilloscopes, function generators, precision electronic balances and Helmholtz coils, allowing students to have a more integrated and real-world learning experience. One of the experiments the students will now be able to complete is one that calls for measuring the Earth’s magnetic field using electromagnetic induction.

The new optics lab space

The second space that has been renovated is the optics lab, which boasts, among other things, diode lasers, polarizers, optical breadboards, CCD cameras, acousto-optic modulators and microwave optics. Students will now be able to build and characterize a diffraction spectrometer as one of their lab experiments.

The optics lab gets new equipment

Both labs now use the space more efficiently. They are now paperless labs, so pre-lab quizzes, lab journals, and reports can all be prepared and submitted using computers. With one laptop per student, programming exercises important to control experiments are now possible and will allow for real-time data acquisition.

That, says George, is a huge step forward.