Course Transformation Work

Foundations of Experimental Physics, PHYS 250: This course is offered to the second-year physics undergraduate students at Queen’s University. In Winter 2017, we ran a pilot project with a CD diffraction experiment. We compared students behaviors in the design lab in which they designed their own experimental procedures to the procedural lab where the students simply followed given step-by-step lab instructions. We ran E-CLASS (Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey for Experimental Physics) and found that students in the design lab had a positive attitude shift towards professional scientists while there was no shift for students in the procedural lab. We are planning to gradually replace the other procedural labs taught in this course with design labs.

General Physics Laboratory, PHYS 350: As a year-long course required for third-year physics students, it used to offer procedural labs in the Fall semester and projects in the Winter. We have redefined the course learning objectives from previously focusing on demonstrating physics concepts to a much broader prospective. The new learning objectives emphasize student capability to generate scientific research questions, choose appropriate physical models, design experiments, make measurements, analyze data, and communicate scientific results. We have redesigned a set of new activities and experiments which scaffold and prepare students for their winter projects.

Engineering Physics Laboratory II, ENPH 353: This semester-long course is offered to third-year engineering physics students. Before transformation students did procedural labs with no project components. We have adopted a 6-week project phase and will use the first half of the semester to teach students knowledge and skills needed for their projects. The students will learn how to use a powerful instrument called STEMlab through carefully designed exercises and experiments (co-developed for PHYS 350). The students will learn how to design experiments and how to model physical situations. They will then move on to come up with their own ideas for projects and see them from conception to successful execution.

Click the image above to see a poster presentation that outlines the structure of the new PHYS 350 and ENPH 353 courses. This poster was presented at the Physics Education Research Conference in Cincinnatti, Ohio in July 2017.

Faculty and Student Development Programs

Faculty working group: The physics faculty members have had a series of meetings to discuss plans for lab course redesign. We had a 3-hour workshop in June 2017  where faculty and undergraduate students worked in groups and mapped the lab course learning outcomes into our 4-year undergraduate lab curriculum. More meeting and workshops will be organized to follow up on progress made in each lab course.

Undergraduate summer students: The physics department hires undergraduate summer students to help redevelop lab course materials. We employed 6 students in Summer 2017 who worked on different lab courses and the range of work varied from rewriting existing lab manuals to develop new experiments.

Transformation Highlight

This mind map shows the learning outcomes that are being adopted into Queen's undergraduate physics lab courses.

This mind map shows the learning outcomes that are being adopted into Queen’s undergraduate physics lab courses.


Dr. Bei Cai is a Teaching and Learning Fellow in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy at Queen’s University. She works with faculty to redesign undergraduate physics lab courses. She helps implement course changes and measures the effectiveness of the new approaches. Dr. Cai teaches General Physics Laboratory—PHYS 350 in the Fall terms. She has a Ph.D. in experimental particle astrophysics from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.


Dr. Robert Knobel is an Associate Professor and chair of Engineering Physics in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy at Queen’s University. His research is concerned with fabricating nanostructures with both electrical and mechanical elements. These are then cooled down to nearly absolute zero to measure their properties – specifically looking for deviations from what one would expect for a macroscopic object. This mesoscopic regime is a new laboratory for the study of quantum mechanics in human-made structures, and may lead to improved sensors and new understanding of the transition from the classical world to the quantum world.


Dr. James Fraser is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy at Queen’s University and Canada 3M National Teaching Fellow. A key focus of his research is into the ultrafast of the ultrasmall. Short optical pulses are produced by compressing a sub-microsecond duration pulse into 100 femtoseconds. This intense beam perturbs any matter it interacts with, moving the  exploration into the nonlinear regime. His team can access excited states of the system, can read out novel information about system symmetry, and can bridge transitions that normally would be forbidden. They control the system in novel and often counter-intuitive ways, and read out information from the system that would normally remain hidden. With light intensities sufficiently high, they can even ablate and “cut” the material with our optical pulse. Combining imaging with micromachining opens up a new perspective into extreme light-matter interaction, and has important technological implications.