Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

Using a Free-Form Lab: Chaos or Learning?

By Erin Hanlon
Mechanical Engineering Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Recently in my Friday afternoon class (who thought Friday afternoon was a good time to lecture, anyway?), as students’ eyes glassed over, one of them asked that we do a lab instead of the lecture that I had planned.

Having not planned a lab activity for that day at all, initially I hesitated to deviate from my carefully constructed plan. I didn’t have anything to give them to do, so how would this work? Would we just be wasting an hour of class time playing around with the lab equipment? What could they possible get out of this?

Knowing that flexibility is important (and realizing that I had already lost at least half of the students’ attention, anyway), I decided to allow the class to spend the remainder of their time working collaboratively in a ‘free lab’ setting. I gave some general guidelines so that they would be using their time constructively and using the equipment safely, but otherwise, I let them create their own goals and expectations. Once they had decided what they were trying to accomplish, I approved their plan and they started building.

In all of the previous labs that we had done in class, the students had very specific directions and measurements that were required. They weren’t coming up with suggestions or designing their own experiments.

When working during their free lab time, students were allowed to set things up and see how they worked differently when changes were made. They had the chance to notice how the decisions that they made based on their previous coursework altered their outcomes. They were also forced to justify their choices and think about the decisions that they were making instead of strictly following the steps provided to them.

I found that using a free lab approach provided a valuable lesson in problem solving and hypothesizing that was missing from the previous lab exercises. Students were able to exercise their system design skills and see that it wasn’t just plopping together a bunch of pieces to see what works. This was a much better representation of what technicians or engineers would be doing in the ‘real world,’ and having them get a glimpse of that in the classroom was very valuable.

This is a lesson that I will implement with intention into future courses. I believe it was successful in providing hands-on learning in a format different from what students were used to being exposed to and more realistic to what they can expect in the future.