During Spring Quarter 2020, UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Physics allocated $10,000 to transition its quantum mechanical labs to remote learning. By then, the campus had been closed for over three months, and professors were concerned that students studying quantum mechanics were missing out on one of the most important in-person elements of class — the chance to experience quantum phenomena.
But when the idea to use the money to automate labs in the physics department — bringing students one step closer to the classroom — was on the table, not everyone was on board.
“There were really mixed feelings in the department if this was worth doing,” said Deborah Fygenson, a physics professor at UCSB who was a part of the team responsible for automating the quantum labs.
“A lot of experimentalists were like, ‘No, you really need to be in a lab and we shouldn’t be giving students the impression that you can be an experimentalist remotely,’” Fygenson said. “But my response was, ‘Actually, a lot of research is done remotely.’”
The automization of the quantum mechanical labs allows for students in the Physics 5L class to interact remotely with equipment using an online portal connected to the apparati set up in the lab, according to Fygenson.
The online portal models the equipment setup, with buttons and knobs in the same order as where they would be on the actual equipment. Students can observe what happens in the lab using cameras aimed at the machines, Fygenson said. So far, the automated lab has been used in Summer 2020 and Fall 2020 and will be used again in Spring 2021.
“What was exciting to me about the prospect [of automized physics labs] and what motivated me to put in the extra effort was the potential to create better access,” Fygenson said. “So, if the student went back and analyzed their data and said ‘Oh, this doesn’t make sense, I think something’s wrong with the equipment,’ they could go back and check. They can actually still log in in the middle of the night and engage with it.”
The automation of the physics lab also allows for students outside of UCSB to observe quantum mechanical phenomena, Fygenson said, adding that several colleges are interested in using the new lab setup to teach their students.
“Having made that initial investment, we’re in a position to offer [this to] institutions who need remote labs because they can’t afford the equipment,” Fygenson said.
Besides increased safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are several advantages to the new automated approach, according to students who participated in the lab this summer.
“There’s a chance you would mess up the apparatus if it were in person, but with this remote control system, you don’t have to worry about that because the limit you can reach is already set,” Xuanlin Wu, a fourth-year physics major, said.
Wu also said that working with the remote lab has inspired him and other students to think about how the apparati controlling the equipment were designed.
Cyrus Bry, a fourth-year physics and communication double major, said because the equipment can be controlled virtually, he was able to use the equipment outside of class time and work more conveniently around his schedule.
“I got to use the machine for longer than I typically would have been able to. I scheduled some time outside of what was reserved for me to log in and use the machines. That really was a big positive, especially to get over some of the speed bumps,” Bry said.
Though Bry enjoyed the extra time with equipment, he said the remote nature of the lab does come with obstacles.
“We’re not physically there in the laboratory, so there’s some limitations to how immersed we can get into the experience. Or even sometimes how quickly we can understand the machines,” he said.
According to Fygenson, all the lab manuals had to be rewritten for the new lab format. As a result, students were given less direction than previous years. Despite the limitations in this new format, Fygenson said she believes this is the best way to teach the class remotely and emphasizes to her students the importance of seeing physics theories come to life through the class.
“There really needs to be this mindset created that you interact with the world and you base your understanding on the results of your interaction,” Fygenson said. “Not just on, ‘It’s supposed to be [that way] because some theorist proved it or some book says it.’”