EUSO 2015 – Observations regarding the experimental technique
“Physics, taught without scientific experiments,
is just a collection of unintelligible formulas.”
(Prof.Dr. Bartos-Elekes Istvan)
Even though it was not the first participation in an international competition, the participation in EUSO 2015 meant for me the confirmation of some previous observations, observations regarding mainly the correctness of the formation of skills of experimental research at the level of high-school students. Many years before, more precisely in 2011, I had participated in Italy at a technical competition. There I was able to directly notice how young individuals are involved in the process of research. Groups of students were put in contact with a research professor, then they were subtly guided on the path of independent discovery of answers to questions. They became familiar with modern techniques and with the most modern laboratory equipment. The middle school pupils were studying living diatoms by using microscopes with video cameras, the images being presented on a screen. These microscopes facilitate group observations and allow simultaneous observations of all aspects of interest. Other groups had access to the sonar placed in La Spezia Gulf, and, by using virtual instrumentation, they found answers regarding various questions: what is the speed of sound in water, what relevant information about the coast is stored in the echo, what is the difference between sounds produced by mechanical systems and those of biological origin…
Coming back to EUSO 2015 and taking into account those reported above I had to make the connection between these two moments. I requested information from the members of several teams. Thus, students from Ireland, Cyprus, Denmark and Germany confirmed my remarks. For them, determining the presence of some chemical compound in a solution by using an absorption spectrometer is not something unusual, but the simple repetition of an experiment made in school. What was important for them at the lab-work evaluation were the conclusions derived from the experiment. Then these conclusions had to be transformed in recommendations presented using an accessible language to non-specialists. As you can see, it is here that a major gap appears between our way of treating this issue and that of others. Consider please any subject given at the experimental contest from the National Olympiads in Physics or Chemistry and you will notice the differences. I will try to synthesize the two experimental contests given in Klagenfurt and then compare them with the experimental contests from our country.
The first contest of biology requested the interpretation of some graphs of efficiency as function of temperature for various species of fish considering also the season in which the observations took place. The reconstruction of a crayfish from anatomic parts preserved in formalin was requested, obviously a test that required not only knowledge of zoology, but also dexterity. The chemistry test consisted in the precise preparation of some solutions and their investigation by using an absorption spectrometer. The extinction of some spectral lines had to be correlated with the concentration of the solution. The purpose of the work was to determine the concentration of Cr(VI) from unknown samples from a factory. The physicists had to benchmark a fan using an anemometer and then, by using this data, to establish and graph the influence that different types of propellers have on the voltage generated by a wind station, functioning at different speeds of air. The second part of the same test was to assemble a combustion pile and then build a circuit that included a multimeter, an electrolyzer and a wind station. Both the efficiency of the combustion pile and the quantity of gases produced in a given situation were required. More information about this test here.
Finally, the team had to respond to 40-50 multi-discipline questions regarding a hypothetical project of constructing a wind station on a P2G system (Power to Gas). It was requested to give economical and energetic recommendations, but also to consider the environmental impact of this project.
The task of the next day requested to identify a falsifier from a group of three individuals suspected of stealing a few paintings from a mansion, the investigators having only a few clues regarding the type of paint and canvas used for determining the origin of the paintings. Evidently, this problem had no connection with the famous case of the Romanian criminals who stole seven paintings from the Kunsthal Museum, Rotterdam, on the night of 15-16 October 2012 J.
The test entitled CIA was complex and required knowledge from all three fields. It was difficult to perform the experiments to highlight hemoglobin using luminol, as was studying Teichmann crystals. The physicists had to classify a few types of materials using the technique of diffraction on grids. Another problem was the analysis of different solutions and the establishment of optical activity. It was requested to calculate the specific angle of rotation of the liquid (obviously in a box of fixed length one had to determine the angles of rotation polarizer-analyzer at different concentrations of the liquid). This task posed difficulties for the majority of teams because they did not determine if the liquid with optical activity was dextrorotary or levorotary, thus this task was helpful for us.
For a comparison, the subjects of theoretical and experimental contests at the National Physics Olympiad 2015 are here: http://lspvs.ro/siteuri/fizica/subiecte.html
We find that at least in the last few years the experimental tasks in our Olympiads have theorized increasingly, and now we find ourselves at an extreme. The experimental contest is now a theoretical contest which incorporates a table of values. The proposed problems have no practical application. The general opinion is that these are crisis solutions and the lack of money is to be blamed for not designing and creating more interesting experiments, experiments which should be designed to bridge the gap between the theory learned in the classroom and what actually happens beyond the school fence.
But there are (more precisely were) situations which show us that things can be different. An example was the physics laboratory at the “Ady Endre” Highschool in Oradea, conceived and built by Prof. Bartos-Elekes Istvan. I say were because, in the meantime, the laboratory was dismantled and transformed into a common classroom.
The following images tell the story of physics and chemistry as it is currently taught in any other Western European country.
I want to believe that we can prove, soon even, that we can do school at another level. Learning in an Informatics High-school, my colleagues and I have adapted already some of the classical experiments to the technologies of this new century. In the picture below are the prototypes of two platforms with a cheap micro controller (less than 50 RON) capable to translate into images (on a screen or projector) and simultaneous to gather data for all students.
I was inspired to construct this device by the former laboratory of Prof. Bartos-Elekes, but I adapted it to the new economical challenges and why not to the new available technologies. On the market there is a wide range of sensors with prices ranging between 7 ( you read correctly, it costs seven RON ) and hundreds of RON (radiation sensors). With a minimum effort the lectures in Physics, Chemistry and Biology would take a step forward.
Collections of numerical data and graphs as those shown above will be available for all students and teachers.