PHYS 175: Advanced Physics Laboratory

Michael Ray
California State University-Sacramento


Physics 175 is a "quasi-capstone" course for physics majors. In this course, students are expected to hone and demonstrate their physics knowledge in a laboratory setting. Emphasis will be placed on developing your laboratory skills, data analysis techniques, scientific writing, and oral presentation.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lab only

Course Context:

This is an advanced course typically taken in a student's penultimate, or ultimate semester. This course is required for all physics majors.

Course Content:

Students do several experiments based on topics from courses throughout the curriculum. Students are involved in all aspects of each experiment, including collected data, data analysis, and presenting the results in one of several forms (informal report, journal-type article, and oral presentation).

The first two weeks of the course include introductory lectures regarding data analysis and scientific communication, along with some activities and homework to prepare students for work in the lab.

Course Goals:

By the end of this course students will be able to:
1) Keep a well-organized, scientific notebook that details all aspects of the experiments they are performing.
2) Use a variety of advanced laboratory equipment to carry out experiments.
3) Quantitatively account for errors in an experiment.
4) Connect data collected in the laboratory to theoretical descriptions/models of the physical system.
5) Present results of an experiment in a variety of methods (i.e. written and oral).
6) Give constructive feedback to others based on written reports.

Course Features:

Students must keep a notebook where they detail the experiments that they perform in the lab. This notebook is checked after each experiment to (1) make sure that they understand the experiment, and (2) give feedback to the student about the quality of their notebook.

Additionally, students must write a "informal" report for each experiment that they perform - something that you would give to your boss to update them on a project you are working on. Out of all the experiments that they perform, students chose one to write a journal-style article. This article is submitted to a mock journal that includes peer review (students are asked to peer review other's submissions as well). Students also prepare a short oral presentation on this experiment as well.

Finally, the first two weeks of the course are a series of lectures and activities on data analysis techniques where students can gain some experience before starting the laboratory experiments.

Course Philosophy:

I am a big proponent of active learning in my classes, and nothing could be more active than a laboratory-based class.

My main goal in this course is to give students a taste of what it is like working in a research lab. To accomplish this I try to be somewhat more "hands-off" in this course. It is the student's responsibility to research the topic of the experiment before they begin that experiment. I give them some general resources, but leave it up to them to find the information they need. I also tend to let them struggle a bit more before stepping in and giving them hints on how to progress.


The main assessment in this course through the reports and notebooks. I use these to determine both the student's understanding and proficiency in the laboratory, as well as their ability to report the findings of their experiments.


[file PHYS 175 syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 154kB Aug16 19) 'Syllabus']

References and Notes:

An Introduction to Error Analysis: The Study of Uncertainties in Physical Measurements
This is a standard text on data analysis techniques. It was also the book used when I started teaching the course.

I make available to the students journal articles written by the faculty, and a library of standard textbooks on topics that are used in laboratory experiments.
I am a member of the Advanced Laboratory for Physics Association (ALPHA) which has provided me with a lot of material regarding advanced lab courses.