Creating Video Versions of Physics Demonstrations

What started as a grant to transform an experiment catalog website blossomed into hundreds of instructional videos for use across the University.
by Shawn Jackson, Senior Instructional Video Consultant

Nestled between the two large lecture halls on the ground floor of the Weiser Hall low-rise, the Physics Demonstration Lab is home to over a thousand different experiments collected over the last four decades. The lab creates these experiments at the request of faculty to demonstrate course objectives and experiments are available for request. In 2018, the Physics department desired to improve the website for cataloging and documenting the experiments. With over a thousand different experiments, this meant finding a different platform for hosting the images, descriptions, and videos for each entry and a way to handle requests. Professor Tim McKay, working along with lab director Monika Wood, submitted a proposal for LSA’s New Initiatives/New Instruction grant funding (read their full proposal. Working with members of LSA Technology Services, ITS, and the Library, a search for a new platform began and work started on converting entries for the new website. Launched the following year, the new site used the Knack platform, which allowed the Demonstration Lab to scale up the number of demonstrations while also more efficiently tracking requests for demonstrations.

Occurring simultaneously with the website improvements in 2018 and 2019, some of the introductory Physics classes moved to the new team-based learning classrooms such as the one in the Biological Sciences Building. This meant that experiments requested by the lab would need to be transported from Weiser Hall to another building. While this was possible for some of the experiments, many experiments could not be transferred due to fragile equipment, missing resources in the new building, or safety concerns. Inclement weather during the late fall and winter semesters also made transportation challenging. Additionally, the layout of the team-based learning classroom made it difficult for all students to have a clear view of the experiments. Scheduling issues that moved the introductory classes out of the Weiser lecture halls meant other STEM classes would move into them and in direct proximity to the lab. 

The experiments also had some pedagogical challenges. By presenting the experiments solely in-person, the students would only have their memories and notes of the experiments to review. Additionally, some of the experiments can be difficult to explain with clarity—either due to the speed or complexity. This can make it challenging for students to know exactly what to take away from the in-person experiments. Lastly, some experiments can often prove difficult to execute with precision and require a lot of practice, which could mean extra class time to reset for multiple attempts and potential danger if not done properly.

After some reflection on these issues, a plan developed between Physics and LSA Technology Services to create video versions of the experiments that are in the most demand and difficult to facilitate in the new building. Working with the faculty teaching outside of the Weiser auditoriums, a list of experiments was compiled. Utilizing borrowed equipment and technical support from LSA Technology Services’ loan centers and instructional consultants, the lab began to film experiments. Initially, the purpose of the videos was to supplement in-person experiments to allow students to review the experiments as they worked through problems or studied for exams. Students could also view the experiment in the case of absence, inclement weather, or equipment malfunction. 

The initial plan was for the Demonstration Lab to film the bulk of the experiments in late 2019 and 2020, followed by LSA Technology Services filming the more challenging experiments the following spring as the Weiser lecture halls became more available. That all changed, of course, in March of 2020 as the pandemic began. As Physics classes continued remotely, the need for these demonstrations only intensified. Quickly, the Demonstration Lab worked with faculty across the department to identify high demand demonstrations that needed to be recorded. These demonstrations would be tailored to the specific objectives of each course, meaning that one experiment might be filmed multiple times to demonstrate different concepts. Initially, that list was 120 different videos. The goal was determined to have all of these videos recorded and edited by the start of the fall semester.

The Instructional Video team within LSA Technology Services was tasked with recording and editing the videos of experiments that were difficult to film. With assistance from the Demonstration Lab, they used their expertise to record the experiments over the course of three sessions. Utilizing the latest camera technology, the Instructional Video team filmed experiments involving extreme low light conditions to capture lasers and electrical sparks, applied slow-motion when appropriate, and worked with multiple camera angles and distances. Combining the technology and the knowledge of experienced videographers, the captured footage attempted to both recreate the experience of seeing the experiments conducted in person while also giving students a closer look at the elements of the experiment. The team was able to capture anything from the dramatic electrical arcs of a Tesla Coil, to the slow-motion trajectories of pennies thrown from a turntable, to a timelapse of melting ice to demonstrate iceberg melting

Working closely with the Demonstration Lab, the Instructional Video team edited each video to suit the needs of the course in which they were being used. While the pandemic was a driving concern to complete these quickly, the videos were designed to be used after the return to in-person learning. All of the videos were recorded without commentary or voiceover to keep the focus on the experiment and to allow faculty to use them as a lecturing tool and speak over them. Closeups, slow motion, and motion graphics were used when it would provide clarity and not replace instruction. By the beginning of fall semester, the Instructional Video team had completed work on over 70 videos. Taking advantage of the empty lecture halls and borrowed equipment, the Demonstration Lab completed an additional 600 videos. All of these videos were then uploaded to the Demonstration Lab’s Youtube channel, which allowed these videos to be accessible across the University and to the public at large. Each video was also embedded in the Demonstration Lab’s website catalog, as seen in the Bicycle-Sized Atwood Machine entry, for example. 

The combined efforts of the Demonstration Lab and LSA Technology Services’ Instructional Video team meant that the majority of all experiments in the website catalog had videos created for them, with many experiments having multiple videos demonstrating different concepts for application in different courses. While the project was not initially conceived to have such a wide reach, the challenges of remote instruction made it an easy decision to change course and expand the scope. In fall 2020 and winter 2021, these videos were adopted across the physics curriculum for hundreds of students to view. Even though the videos can not replicate the experience of seeing the experiments in person, they are a crucial tool to provide concrete examples of concepts taught in lecture. In the coming semesters, the physics department, Demonstration Lab, and the Instructional Video team will work together to evaluate the effectiveness of the videos created and work on creating and editing additional videos to supplement in-class instruction and bolster course resilience.

If you or your department has a desire to transform a course or courses, either by creating media such as video lectures or websites, or by transforming the methods or organization of classroom instruction, the Instructional Consultants within LSA Technology Services can assist you in planning and implementing those changes. Reach out to us through our contact form for more information and we will schedule an initial consultation. For information about grants and other funding available for projects, visit our Funding and Grants page for links and examples of previous proposals.

Release Date: 09/10/2021
Category: Innovate Newsletter
Tags: Technology Services