Entrepreneurial Physics Professor Leads EnLiST by Example

Professor Mats Selen of the Physics Department at the University of Illinois is Principal Investigator of the EnLiST Project. As part of creating instructional materials for the EnLiST Physics Summer Institute for high school physics teachers, he has developed what he fondly refers to as a ‘lab gadget,’ which he hopes will help change the way physics labs cater to student learning needs. By using relatively inexpensive components he has been able to hook up the lab gadget to various measurement devices, such as an accelerometer, a Hall probe, and a high-gain amplifier. Selen’s initial motivation was to make the time spent at the EnLiST Institute enjoyable for teachers, so he simply thought of something that he would find fun. “I found some stuff that I thought was really exciting that I never imagined doing before, and by great luck it worked really well,” says Selen.

The lab gadget is linked wirelessly to software running on a PC, also being developed by Selen. Once developed, the hope is that physics students will be able to purchase the inexpensive lab gadget, allowing them to bring a complete physics lab into their own dorm. When coupled with online lab materials, the lab gadget could change the way that students learn by giving them the opportunity to engage with hands-on activities virtually anywhere and at their own pace. This in turn can change the way students and teachers interact in the classroom since the new lab activities can be done prior to lecture. A similar online lecture preparation tactic – known as “pre-lectures” – was recently developed by Gladding, Stelzer and Selen at the University of Illinois as part of their “smartPhysics” course development for Macmillan publishing. Giving students the opportunity to participate in lab activities as a part of their lecture preparation “opens up a whole new world as far as interacting with students in class,” Selen says.

Work on the lab gadget is definitely reflective of the entrepreneurial spirit behind the EnLiST program. The initial work with EnLiST, as well as the existing collaboration between Selen and his colleagues Stelzer and Gladding in the context of smartPhysics, served as foundation for the ‘gadget’ project. The support of McMillan Publishing is key to the actual development of the hardware and software components of the system, and Selen hopes the last piece of the puzzle will be found in the approval of a pending NSF grant proposal to support the development of associated curricular content.

Selen credits EnLiST in providing the motivation to step outside of his comfort zone and make this work possible. While it began with the summer institute for teachers, it has taken on a life of its own in order to benefit physics students in and out of lecture. “The idea of trying to take it a little further, this entrepreneurial thing, is a large part of EnLiST… It’s been very inspirational.”