Working Out the ’Bugs for a Reimagined Physics Lab

Inexpensive robotic toys called Hexbugs will be used in physics lab experiments this fall.

Instead of learning how to use lasers and other high-tech physics equipment in the lab course that Seeley W. Mudd Professor of Physics Janice Hudgings will teach this fall, students will study the movements of insect-like robotic devices.

Known by the trademark name Hexbugs, they are toys that cost less than $20 for a set of five. But as Pomona College classes continue online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students will use the gadgets along with software programs and student-designed boxes to complete experiments remotely for Hudgings’ Foundations of Modern Physics lab. That doesn’t mean the work will be unsophisticated.

“We’re going to do statistical mechanics experiments where everybody will have a collection of these Hexbugs that move around more or less randomly, like the molecules in a gas,” Hudgings says. “You could put a moveable wall in the middle of the box and watch the wall move as the molecules/Hexbugs hit it, enabling you to measure the ‘gas pressure’ exerted by the Hexbugs. Or, the cardboard box might have holes in it, which function as a model for trap sites. Or the box might have a pinch point to model resistance. There are all sorts of different creative things you can do that model physical phenomena.”

A bit like a Hexbug running into a wall, Hudgings turned in another direction after the novel coronavirus changed everything last spring.

Even with no more than 24 students in her class, she knew the quantum optics experiments she taught in Millikan’s underground lab last year wouldn’t work this fall.

“Even if we were in person, there’s no way to socially distance in that lab,” Hudgings says.

So it was that necessity became the mother of pedagogical invention. Like other professors, Hudgings has rethought what and how she teaches. The College’s department of Information Technology Services (ITS) and the Online Teaching and Learning Committee offer support as professors reimagine their methods.

“The upending of business-as-usual has also provided an opportunity for creativity,” Hudgings says.

“What I eventually came around to thinking about was there’s a lot of focus in most of the labs I teach on the equipment and how to use the equipment. But when I think about what the possible learning objectives for a science lab are, there are a whole bunch of other learning objectives that have nothing to do with the equipment,” she says. “For example, how do you find a research question? How do you design an experiment? How do you analyze the data, and then how do you communicate what you’ve found?”

Two physics majors who planned to do on-campus research this summer, Genevieve DiBari ’22 and Liliana Valle ’22, were instead hired by the department to develop experiments and test software for Hudgings’ class.

“We are redesigning her 101 lab that typically used fairly high-tech equipment and making it into something that students can do at home,” DiBari says. “Personally, I’ve been having a lot of fun with designing these experiments because it does pose a little bit of a challenge, looking at how previous people have set up experiments with more equipment, and then trying to translate it back to something I have just laying around my house. I’ve been using a lot of shoeboxes and these wooden barbecue skewers that I found in my pantry.

“I think the way we’re designing the lab, it’s going to give students a lot of flexibility in terms of how they want to design their experiments and also, as the lab progresses, what they want to do with those experiments.”

Beyond the usual lab notebooks, students in Hudgings’ class this fall will learn how to communicate what they have learned by writing scholarly articles of the sort published in scientific journals.

“We’re going to start by reading the scientific literature together. What ideas did that spark? Can we come up with creative ways to put this together and ask new kinds of questions? And then students, you identified a question you want to ask, how you going to design the experiment?”

Each student will write their research paper as a formal scientific manuscript, working with a trained student writing partner.

“Then they submit them to the editor, which is me,” Hudgings says. “I send them out for blind peer review by their fellow students, and then they go through a rewrite process. And I give them, as we do that, samples of my own manuscripts and the comments I’ve gotten back from reviewers, so they can see the style of how to handle all this.”

Beyond the students’ individual papers, Hudgings says she has something of a pipe dream that would involve about two dozen co-authors.

“If all goes well, what I would like to do as a class at the end of the semester is actually write it up for real publication,” she says. “This work shows that you can do creative, interesting, modern physics with something as simple as these little Hexbugs. I think it would be of interest to the physics community. There are some journals that publish some good pedagogical experiments. Just the experiments in their own rights, doing statistical mechanics with these Hexbugs, will be of interest to people. But I also think of framing it as hey, look, this is what you can do with teaching an upper-level physics lab online.”

Hudgings’ experimental journey is one professors and students are on together.

“You know, online isn’t what Pomona wants to be,” she says, nodding to the College’s commitment to small classes and one-on-one interaction with professors. “But both in my own thinking and what I hear repeatedly from my colleagues, this is an opportunity for us to rethink our teaching and be creative and really knuckle down on what exactly are our learning objectives, what’s most important. And we’re all going to come out of this stronger teachers in person than we used to be.

“I think students will find some interesting, thoughtful, creative teaching and learning experiences this fall.”

By the way, how did she discover Hexbugs in the first place?

“I think the first time I saw them was with my kids,” says Hudgings, a parent of two daughters, ages 10 and 13.

That eventually posed another small obstacle.

“I went to go do my experiment one night and I just could not find one of the Hexbugs. I looked everywhere. I was crawling around on the floor looking for these things. And finally, days later, I was making my daughter’s bed and I found it inside her bed.

“I’m like, ‘You stole my physics experiment!’”