Reformed Labs


Florida International University’s (FIU) efforts at laboratory reform are an integral part of its work as a Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) Primary Partner Institution. PhysTEC is a partnership of the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Association of Physics Teachers with a goal of improving and promoting the education of future physics teachers. FIU’s Physics Department and College of Education faculty are committed to reforming our physics teacher education program by combining our ongoing inquiry-based reform efforts with the strengths and successes of PhysTEC to make a substantial impact on physics education in diverse South Florida.

Following the University of Colorado at Boulder model, FIU is developing an integrated, multilevel pre-service program that recruits high quality students to become Learning Assistants (LAs), then places these LAs in early field experiences to give them the best training available, and provide a supportive mentoring environment in which to develop and hone their teaching skills (Finkelstein, 2006/07).

To this end, FIU has adapted and implemented a tutorial-based curriculum in the introductory physics laboratories complementing a traditional lecture component. Tutorials and instructor-led demonstrations designed by the Physics Education Research Group at Maryland (Scherr, 2007) were combined and organized to align with the sequence of instruction at FIU.

FIU began its reform of the General Physics I by using the tutorial-based reform materials in six lab sections in the Spring of 2008. These labs served both calculus- and algebra-based introductory Physics I courses. By the Spring 2009 semester, positive results in conceptual gains as well as neutral attitudinal shifts (a good result in science education reform) resulted in full-scale implementation of reformed labs in Physics I and the beginning of the reformation of the Physics II labs. To further develop student understanding of scientific learning, FIU adopted a curriculum based on experimental design and model building for the Physics II labs (Etkina, 2007). As of Fall 2010, all of FIU’s General Physics I and II laboratories (24 and 14 sections respectively) will be using student-centered curricula that encourage the “doing science”.


Reformed physics labs are led by a graduate Teaching Assistant (TA) and 1-2 undergraduate LAs. Students in the reformed labs work in groups and the TAs and LAs act as facilitators of learning. TAs and LAs train weekly with project faculty and a teacher-in-residence to clarify physics concepts as well as discuss student conceptions and pedagogy for facilitating learning. The LAs are also enrolled in Seminar in Physics Education, a science education class modeled after a course developed at the University of Colorado (Finkelstein, 2006/2007). The course involves reading and discussing educational research articles, and emphasizes the implementation of research findings in field experiences that included the reformed labs.

Significant gains in FCI for reformed lab students versus non-reformed lab students show that the combination of the modified tutorials and the addition of LAs to the lab environment is a successful means of improving student conceptual understanding of Newtonian force and motion (Wells, et al 2008). Further study (Rodriquez, et al 2009) indicated that the original positive results were maintained and that the results were independent of Teaching Assistant assignment. Currently, FIU PERG members are investigating which ideas and strategies introduced in the LA seminar resonate with the Learning Assistants as they spend their first semester teaching in the reformed labs.

Etkina, E. Van Heuvelen, A, Brahmia, S. & Zou, X. ISLE: Investigative Science Learning Environment (2007). WWW Document, (

Finkelstein, N. D., Otero, V., & Pollock, S. J. APS Forum on Education 2006/2007 Newsletter, 11-13.

Rodriguez, I., Palencia, J., Brewe, E., Kramer, L. O’Brien, G. & Wells, L. Impact of the FIU PhysTEC Reform of Introductory Physics Labs. Contributed Poster. Phys. Ed. Res. Conf. Ann Arbor, MI, July 2009

Scherr, R. E., Elby, A., Hammer, D., and Redish, E.F. Physics 122: Tutorials and laboratories. Department of Physics, University of Maryland, College Park. Fall 2007 edition. Wiley Custom Services.

Wells, L., Valenzuela, R., Brewe, E., Kramer, L., O’Brien, G., & Zamolla, E., “Impacts of the FIU PhysTEC reform of introductory physics labs,” Phys. Ed. Res. Conf. Edmonton, Canada, AIP Conference Proceedings, Accepted for publication 3 August 08.