Undergraduate Research at Valencia West Campus Physics Lab

wc-undergrad-research-collage-groveA message from Falecia Williams, President, West Campus

Professor of Physics and Chair of Physical Sciences Irina Struganova shares her thoughts on the importance of undergraduate research experiences and opportunities available for STEM students at Valencia West Campus Physics Lab and her student’s achievements. 

Prior to joining Valencia Faculty in 2008, I spent most of my academic career mentoring students in their undergraduate research projects at a four-year university. This was a very rewarding, yet challenging experience. It took me awhile to learn what type of undergraduate research experience is both suitable and beneficial for students in a small four-year college.

When I first started at Valencia, I did not think I would ever try to expose my students to undergraduate research. What was very challenging in a four-year school seemed impossible in a two-year community college. However, with time, I realized that undergraduate research experience may be crucial for any number of Valencia students enrolled in 2+2 STEM programs. These students would need to have some research skills already developed when they start as juniors in a four-year school.

Taking into account the specific needs of Valencia students, as well as the unique environment of the Open Physics Lab on West Campus, I decided to try “mini projects” related to advanced physics lab experiments as a way of providing an introductory undergraduate research experience. I started by incorporating “mini projects” in the course Physics with Calculus I Honors (PHY2048H) in the fall of 2012.

Overall, the experience was successful; all students enrolled in the course completed their projects. One of the students, Daniel Siebert, used the results of his project to write a paper, which was awarded second place in the Freshman/Sophomore Documented Research category at the Florida Honors Collegiate Council Writing Contest in 2013.

With the successes, however, came some downsides. The Physics with Calculus I curriculum is very intense and challenging, even without extra projects, and my students and I were under time constraints. Valencia also has a relatively large number of STEM students who are not enrolled in the honors program, and they, too, needed an opportunity to be exposed to introductory research.

In light of this, my second attempt was to offer projects related to physics lab experiments to interested students as a Selected Topics in Physics (PHY2936) course. Both honors and non-honors students, in good standing in my physics classes, could sign up for the course. Because West Campus physics lab is open every day from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m., students could choose times to work on their projects that fit their schedule.

This academic year, I had three students, Cadee Hall, Conan Wilson and Joao Francolin, working on their projects under my guidance. Joao decided to complete a project related to the Davission and Germer experiment on diffraction of electrons, while Cadee and Conan expressed an interest in electric circuits.

For Cadee and Conan, I suggested they try to develop an alternating current experiment for our physics lab, which, in their opinion, would be interesting and beneficial for future students. They exceeded my expectations by learning new physics concepts and new software. Cadee and Conan used this knowledge to assemble the circuit, and then, collected and analyzed data, wrote a draft of a procedure and overall, developed an excellent experiment. We plan to incorporate their experiment into the Physics with Calculus II curriculum in the fall.

Thanks to Lester Mandell Endowed Chair funds, Cadee was able to attend the American Association of Physics Teachers Winter National Meeting in San Diego in January 2015. She shared her and Conan’s experience by giving an oral presentation during the meeting’s Physics Undergraduate Research Section. She gave an excellent presentation and a number of physics professors who attended the presentation approached me to tell me they were very impressed with the quality of the presentation, especially coming from a student at a two-year school.

Joao’s project was also a success. His experiment  proved that electrons, which are tiny particles, can also behave as waves. Wave-particle duality is a cornerstone of modern physics, and in 1937 Clinton Davisson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his findings. Thanks again to the Lester Mandell Endowed Chair support, we were fortunate to have a modern version of this experiment in our physics lab on West Campus.

Joao started to work on the project while taking Physics with Calculus I Honors, and then continued to work on it as part of his independent study class. He researched the history of the experiment, learned basic physics principles involved, conducted the experiment, analyzed the data (including calculating the wavelength associated with the electrons), wrote a draft paper and made a poster related to his project. He presented his original poster at the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference in Daytona Beach in February 2015, where his presentation was very well received.

My students’ enthusiasm and success, coupled with feedback from my peers at conferences, convinced me that projects related to advanced physics lab experiments are well suited to the undergraduate research experience at Valencia. I am enthusiastic about the possibilities and plan to continue to provide this research project opportunities to my students.

I am very thankful to the Valencia Foundation and the Lester Mandell Endowed Chair in Physical Sciences for their generous support. I would also like to thank William Stillwell, instructional assistant, senior, for his insights and help.

2 Comments

  • Bob Gessner said:

    Congratulations and thanks to the entire team who built the educational kiosks. Every time I walk around Lake Pamela, I am so impressed by the professional work that you all produced. The educational artwork tops off the project. When I see the kiosks, both at the butterfly garden and at the Bat House, I feel like I am at a state or national park; the work is that excellent. Great job!

    AMFri, 22 May 2015 10:10:29 +0000Fri, 22 May 2015 10:10:29 +0000am15,10:10 am

  • Bob Gessner said:

    Irina is a treasure that we are so provileged to have represent our Science Division and Valencia College at many local, state and national forums. The work she does for and with her students is inspirational to others who contemplate providing undergraduate educational research experiences at Valencia. Awesome work, as usual, Irina.

    AMFri, 22 May 2015 10:14:11 +0000Fri, 22 May 2015 10:14:11 +0000am15,10:14 am

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