Laboratory projects as a first year physics student

Posted in: Faculty of Science, Undergraduate

At the University of Bath, the Physics course structure states that students submit two coursework projects per year (one per semester) during their First Year of study. Having just completed the first of those two projects I’d like to share my journey and some general tips regarding this core part of any Physics degree!

First session

The entire process starts off with a (possibly longer than necessary) presentation on instructions and initial tasks to launch our projects. We get shown useful notes, sources and information within the set of laboratory notes that each student receives at the start of the semester. This notebook of laboratory notes basically contains, within its intimidating yellow covers, detailed instructions about all the lab sessions you must attend throughout the first year, including background information, refresher information on how to use certain types of equipment/technique, tips and tricks on projects and general advice for  coursework. We were then matched up with our lab partners, who I will work with for the entirety of the project duration, and each pair is assigned a unique project. My partner and I received “Finding the surface tension coefficient of water by capillary wave diffraction”.

After the presentation we had the allocated lab session time to do research around the experiment and figure out what equipment we need, how we’ll do our setup, what readings we’ll take and how we’ll analyze the experimental data. And yes- I had to re-read the experiment description more than a few times to actually understand what we were supposed to do. So, with the help of a stack of library books, panicked Google searches and the lab notes we managed to construct an experiment proposal. A proposal is an explanation of the setup, readings to be taken and how they’ll be used to achieve the end result. It is then presented to a member of the lab staff by the end of the first session for a seal of approval.

Second session

With the green light from the lab staff, we used the second allocated lab session to set up the equipment and do a few test runs collecting data.

This is the setup I and my lab partner decided on: the vibration inducer above the shallow bowl of water and laser (black box to the right) hitting it at a shallow angle so that the ripples diffract nicely.

The test data was then analyzed like we were planning to analyze the actual readings, which in simple terms involves plugging it into equations, plotting resulting variables on a graph and seeing whether it follows the physical laws it needs to follow in order to give results that agree with the accepted value of the surface tension coefficient.

This session involved a lot of trial and error in regards to our setup. There is absolutely no shame in asking the lab support staff for advice and/or assistance with any problems you may be having. We found ourselves having to seek help quite a few times as the material and equipment were quite foreign to anything we had worked with before. We concluded two test runs which both led us to tweak and improve the way our equipment was set up, the way we took readings and our approach, which eventually resulted in data that agreed with the accepted values! With the equipment and technique sorted we were ready to conduct the experiment properly and take the official readings we’d be using in the analysis.

Third session

This session was used for gathering large amounts of raw data. We even had enough time to collect two sets of readings, which we averaged to reach a more accurate result. Due to the testing during the second session and the refinement of approach that followed, we even had some remaining time to do some of the initial data analysis.

Plugged into a signal generator (used to choose discrete frequencies so we can log results for specific numbers easily)

Fourth session

All students had this session away from the labs which was to be used purely to complete the data analysis and maybe begin some of the write up of the project report.

The data analysis portion of the project represents all of the processed involved in taking the raw data, formatting it in Excel, plugging it into the relevant equations and hoping that it agrees with the accepted values of whichever constant your experiment is based around.

The project report is just like a scientific report. Meaning it follows the protocol structure, i.e. it must include an abstract, introduction, method description, results section, discussion, conclusion and references (and a few more things, depending on the project content). For part of the project we had an additional two weeks to write test drafts, consult with our tutors and finalize the report. It is very useful to do additional reading around the topic and theory, as that would improve the actual content of the report when incorporated properly, to give you reliable, relevant references and help you understand the Physics of your topic which is one of the main purposes of the project. It was really useful to meet with our tutor to discuss the report and using that advice to create a more refined draft. Tutors are often able to pick out some mistakes either in the grammar, theory or formatting, each of which gets looked at when the report is being marked.

Hopefully this has helped clear up how Physics laboratory projects are conducted at university and has given you an idea of what to expect if you come to study Physics at Bath!

Posted in: Faculty of Science, Undergraduate

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