Heat: An Inquiry-based Physics Laboratory for Life Sciences Students

Margaret J. Wegener, Marianne Doyle-Pegg, Timothy J. McIntyre


We have developed an inquiry-based first-year undergraduate experiment to investigate heat transfer. Students consider the real-world problem of how the temperature inside a building is influenced by various factors. Students develop their understanding of heat transfer through scaffolding experiments, and then construct a simple model house, and monitor its internal temperature when exposed to ambient conditions over a 24-hour period. In a following session, based on their acquired knowledge, teams design and test a model building according to their own chosen goal (constant-temperature house, greenhouse, etc.). As an extension, students also examine the insulating characteristics of animals. Class observation, analysis of student responses and survey data show that the activity successfully engages students, better motivating them to understand the physics involved. They have to deal with problems that arise during the experiments and discuss solutions with their group members. They encounter other interesting questions as they try to achieve their goal, and learn more science in the process. The aspects of this activity that work particularly well are the realism of the scenario, a degree of student ownership of experiments, and controlled variation in what students do through the design choices possible.

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