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iOLab: Bringing physics labs to homes around the world

27 July 2020

Few people would suspect that a device barely larger than a smartphone and weighing the same as Apple’s iPhone SE has nearly all the components needed for the labs of two virtual physics courses. With over 15 sensor capabilities, the handheld device is able to detect everything from light intensity to acceleration and also can wirelessly send the data to students’ laptops for analysis. The instrument is essentially a fun-sized physics lab that can be tucked into a pocket.

Louis Leblond holds iOLab

The device, called iOLab, was created by two professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and introduced to Penn State’s physics students in the fall of 2015 by Louis Leblond, associate teaching professor of physics. During a pilot test period, the instrument was used in on-campus lecture courses in place of lab sessions. With the success of iOLab in traditional classes and support from his colleagues, Leblond began focusing on students in a different setting—online.

While the transition to teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a new experience for many professors, little changed for Leblond and his 68 students in spring 2020. Unlike many other professors, who had just a few weeks to redesign their course to be online compatible, Leblond had been designing and teaching his online physics courses since 2018. Today, Penn State World Campus offers online versions of PHYS 211: General Physics: Mechanics and PHYS 212: General Physics: Electricity and Magnetism, with labs that have been redesigned to foster critical thinking skills and experimental scientific abilities. These remote courses allow students to conduct their own labs wherever they are in the world.

“Students tend to enjoy using the iOLab, and most find it simple to use and understand,” said Emma Koller, an alumna who studied the effectiveness and response to the online physics courses. “I think another big part of the success with using the iOLab is that it’s a very convenient device. Many of the students who take online PHYS 211 and 212 are adult learners and have familial and work obligations outside of school, so being able to perform physics labs with a device the size of a hand is very useful and effective.”

The flexibility in course location and time also appeals to members of the workforce who might be working in tech companies but are looking for a career change or promotion.

“Our World Campus classes usually have between 20 and 60 students,” said Leblond. “The students’ ages have ranged from 16 to 70 years old, with a mean age of about 27. About 70 percent are full-time workers, 20 percent are part time, and only 10 percent are full-time students. In general, they're just so excited to learn.”

While his courses have been successful thus far, Leblond recognizes the importance of continually getting feedback and improving. He acknowledges that virtual classrooms do present some difficulties.

“The biggest challenge is making sure you create a course where you have multiple channels for students to interact with you and for them to interact with each other,” said Leblond. "National standardized tests were used to demonstrate that the students in the online class achieved learning gains as good as what is achieved in face-to-face classes with active learning." Leblond also regularly polls the students and has learned that they find iOLab both useful and user friendly. 

Since the introduction of iOLab five years ago, there have been many other similar products that have hit the market. In fact, even smartphones can be transformed into a physics-data-collecting device with the assistance of proper apps. Looking into the future for his classes, Leblond hinted at the possibility of diversifying to include other physics equipment for remote learning. So, while people today might view the smartphone in their hand as a device primarily for communicating, in the near future students could be relying on it to conduct a lab.