Experimental physics is the bedrock from which all our understanding of the universe must come. Without the ability to test nature, even our grandest ideas are just speculation. Even if you plan to avoid experimental work in your career, you will need to understand the provenance of the data with which to test your theories.
So how do we set about learning it? The answer is stage by stage, level by level!
Level 1 - mastering the basics
You prepare for full-scale experiments. Level 1 Labs see you build the skills required to be a competent experimental physicist. By doing small, self-contained experiments that last a single session, You will learn basic lab skills such as:
- Making observations - for example, how to measure electrical signals with an oscilloscope.
- Recording what you did in lab book and spreadsheet.
- Processing the data on a computer and estimating the uncertainty in your measurements and the statistical significance of your results.
- Interpretation of your data using the Physics learnt in the lecture courses.
- 'Writing a report of your experiment.
- Using your time effectively and work harmoniously with a partner.
- How to do all this safely.
Level 2 - putting it all together
Doing a complete investigation using what you learnt in Level 1. You will carry out experiments over multiple sessions and have more freedom. You will still be supported throughout so that you can learn the skills needed for experimental physics:
- Choosing measurements you will need to make, how many and to what accuracy.
- Planning your activities over multiple sessions and record what you did.
- Using computers to control hardware.
- Using cryogens safely.
- Automating experiments so that you can generate large datasets without breaking into a sweat.
- Presenting your work - in written reports, seminars and interviews.
- Computing - both in the numerical techniqes required to get the most from your data and by instruction in a computer language.
Level 3 - taking charge
Having chosen an experimental project in a particular area, you work out how to do it! Advice will be given, but you will be the leader of your own investigation. The important point here is that you will be doing result-oriented research, instead of simply following a script to get the "correct" answer. You will learn important skills regarding working on longer, more open-ended projects, such as:
- Planning your time and resources effectively.
- Deciding on your goals and judge when you have achieved them. Scary? Not at all, it's liberating! Isn't this why you wanted to study physics?
- Deepening on computing skills.
- Writing a full lab report in the style of scientific research.
The Level 3 laboratory is divided into several sections covering a range of Physics specialities. We will try to assign you to the laboratory of your choice.
By now you will be qualified as a real physicist.
Level 4 - the project
Now you can really express yourself as a physicist. The project takes up fully half of the final year and, like most other students, you will probably love it. With one-to-one supervision, you can do pretty much anything and will have considerable input into the direction of the project and how to execute it. You will learn important research skills such as:
- Writing a thesis of research-level standard.
- "Defending" your thesis.
Your work might make a real contribution to science. Your supervisor might even try to steal your ideas. It may even be published in a proper scientific journal. How good will that look on your CV?
By now, you will be fully equipped to enter the dizzy heights of post-graduate research or a good research job in industry.
Chair of Teaching Laboratories Committee
Dr Marek Szablewski, BSc (App. Chem.), MPhil, PhD (Molecular Electronics), PGCert, MRSC, CChem, MInstP, CPhys, FHEA, FRSA
(email at firstname.lastname@example.org)