On any given day, particularly during the peak hours of another busy fall semester, the 35,000-square-foot Shell Engineering Foundations Laboratory is a blur of activity, with machines humming and whirring over the din of student chatter as their mechanical arms chart patterns if not the career courses for thousands of future Aggie engineers and scientists.
The laboratory, located on the third floor of Texas A&M University’s Zachry Engineering Education Complex, is a tangible example of the transformational difference a little teamwork and Aggie ingenuity can make in improving fundamental education delivery by focusing on an old-fashioned, time-honored concept — experience — the more realistic and hands-on, the better.
You say you want a revolution
Three years ago, Zachry wasn’t the only bold renovation project underway on the Texas A&M campus. At the time, a simultaneous one began as a collaboration between faculty in the Colleges of Science and the Engineering to revamp required engineering courses, including classical mechanics, engineering calculus and chemistry for engineers. Last fall, that joint effort resulted in the campus-wide debut of an entirely new engineering physics sequence featuring not only a new set of laboratories for introductory physics service courses but also a novel method of delivery: state-of-the-art laboratory stations custom-made to revolutionize the learning experience.
Designed by a team of physicists from the Department of Physics and Astronomy under the direction of Professor Ricardo Eusebi, each specialized work unit is equipped with tools and high-tech, interactive features enabling students to put complex physics concepts to practice and generate detailed electronic reports. The idea, Eusebi says, is to foster a learning-by-doing experience.
To date, 60 of the lab stations have been installed within the Shell Laboratory, where they are used by students taking two new cross-listed courses: PHYS/ENGR 216 Mechanics or PHYS/ENGR 217 Electricity and Magnetism.
“We want them to have an experimental understanding, as opposed to just a theoretical understanding,” Eusebi said. “We’re no longer asking students to believe and trust what we’re telling them. Now, we’re asking them to prove it experimentally.”
Tables for 3,000
The stations consist of a high-lift, four-by-four-foot air table that provide a low-friction surface. At first glance, they resemble air hockey tables, and with students huddled around gliding brightly colored pucks back and forth, it would be easy to mistake what’s going on for a rousing bout of the popular game. In actuality, the students are analyzing detailed information on the position, velocity and acceleration of the pucks.
Each puck is covered in strategically placed stickers, and cameras mounted over the tables use a special tracking software to record their frame-by-frame coordinates, which students then can track on monitors in real time. Students can also alter the slope of the table or strategically arrange collisions and use the information to make assessments about the dynamics of projectile motion under various conditions.
In addition, a computer numerical control (CNC) feature modulates an armature that can be fitted with various instruments, such as voltage probes, which can then scan sensors on the table and take voltage readings as a function of position.
“The thing that really tells you how well these labs are going are the reports that the students make,” Eusebi said. “Those reports are beautiful — they show you the amount of information these devices produce. Not only do the students get to take the data by themselves, they get to analyze it in a way that couldn’t be done in the old labs.”
Committee for change
Eusebi was a member of the joint Science-Engineering committee charged in fall 2016 with merging the ENGR 111/112 classes and the PHYS 208/218 laboratories to create joint physics and engineering courses. Faculty from both disciplines as well as chemistry and mathematics met regularly for nearly a year to determine what improvements could be made to the curriculum. Beyond restructuring the course material, Eusebi says, they wanted to completely change the way it was taught. Thus, the idea for a one-of-a-kind experimental learning facility was set in motion.
“It was an opportunity for us to do some research to figure out how the new labs should be designed, without any restraint on what the technology was or what devices were available,” Eusebi said. “We wanted to start completely from scratch and think of the best, most ideal lab we could have. We did that with a completely open mind.”
John Mason, an instructional assistant professor of physics who earned his Ph.D. in physics from Texas A&M in 2016, was one of the researchers recruited by Eusebi early on to help with the development of the tables and oversee their implementation into the new courses.
“We sat down and took a hard, introspective look at our labs that we had, and we said, ‘we can do this better,’” Mason said. “We wanted to come up with a curriculum that wasn’t cookie-cutter to what other colleges are doing. We wanted our students to really think, and we wanted to improve on the educational experience here at Texas A&M. That was our goal, and I think that we’ve met that goal.”
Mason says the entire process, from conceptualization to installation, took nearly two years but efforts to improve upon the functional and technological capabilities of the tables will remain on-going.
“A lot of the equipment is custom-made,” he said. “It took a long time to get this project off the ground, and we’re still growing. We consider it a work in progress — we’ll never be done making them better.”
Conducive to collaboration
Eusebi estimates the tables are used by approximately 3,000 physics and engineering majors per week, making the Shell Engineering Foundations Laboratory one of the largest student-serving experimental facilities on campus. As one of the most recent improvements, 2011 Cornell University physics graduate Alexander Yeagle was hired in June as a laboratory manager to oversee the research space.
“I think the big advantage of these new labs that we have here is it gets people exposure with tools they might actually use,” Yeagle said. “You’re getting a lot of exposure with data acquisition, visual tracking and odometry using the cameras and CNC, which are all things used in industry.”
Because the lab tables are specifically designed to be conducive to collaboration, allowing students to electronically share data between machines with their peers, Yeagle says students get to experience a more accurate representation of how research is actually conducted.
“Science research as it’s done today changes quite a bit,” Yeagle said. “The days where it’s somebody by themselves sitting in a lab has kind of passed. A lot of what happens now is collaborative work, and it also includes software and computer work. Getting used to that would help people understand how research is done nowadays more than the way it used to be done, which is still what’s taught in a lot of places.”
Expanding the experience
Engineering programs at other campuses in The Texas A&M University System, including Texas A&M’s branch campuses at Galveston, Qatar and McAllen, already are embracing the technology and have implemented the new tables into their curriculum. The tables also are in use in all Engineering Academies throughout the state and in community colleges in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Brownsville and Brenham. Thus far, 114 total units have been deployed. Last fall, Eusebi filed a patent on behalf of his team of graduate students and physicists who helped design and construct the tables. In addition, there is a company that has entered into an exclusive license with the Texas A&M System to eventually sell them commercially.
“Building these tables turned into a much bigger job than we originally thought, but a large number of colleges in Texas are using these machines and following Texas A&M’s lead,” Eusebi said.
Eusebi is no stranger to such enterprising group projects, having previously mentored a six-member student team led by physics graduate student Andrea Delgado ’12 that designed and built Texas A&M’s Tesla coil housed in the basement of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building that since has become one of the most popular attractions for aspiring scientists and engineers of all ages at the annual Texas A&M Physics and Engineering Festival, set for April 4, 2020.
To learn more about Physics Teaching Labs, visit https://physics.tamu.edu/academics/labs/.
For more information about Eusebi and his teaching, research and service, go to https://physics.tamu.edu/directory/ricardo-eusebi/.