At-Home Labs for First Year Physics

First Year
Guided activity, Laboratory, Open-ended activity
Mechanics, Optics / Waves, Physics, Thermal Physics and Statistics
University of New South Wales
Nov 2021

A set of first-year physics labs that can be conducted with common household equipment

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About this resource


This resource is a series of 13 first year physics labs that can be conducted at-home. These were intended to provide hands-on laboratory experiences for online courses or in circumstances where attending a real-life lab is not possible. The labs primarily cover mechanics, waves (including optics) and thermodynamics.



Pedagogical backing


This resource is intended for use in providing hands-on physics laboratory experiences when students are unable to attend an on-campus laboratory class. They have been designed to use common household items (instead of simulations in most cases) to preserve the “hands-on” aspect of physics laboratories. We believe that hands-on laboratory exercises are better able to deliver laboratory learning outcomes and skills, as they follow the focus areas of modelling, developing technical and practical lab skills, and designing experiments [1].

Our labs have been developed for two different situations. One set of labs has been designed for an entirely online course, Everyday Physics. This course is algebra-based and designed for students who have not studied physics in high school. It takes a very contextualised approach to stimulate students’ interest; the twelve topics in the course describe how objects, such as hot air balloons and musical instruments, work. In this course, students choose which topics they wish to study. There are six experiments they can conduct at home (one is a simulation), of which they choose three that are associated with topics they have chosen to study. These have been designed to scaffold their development of lab skills, such as safely collecting data, linearising equations, presenting data with the correct number of significant figures, and calculating uncertainties. We have included files provided to students about these skills. At the end of the course, students design their own experiment about something in physics they find interesting. They check their topic with their tutor and then produce a draft of the experimental report, which is submitted for peer review. Students are marked on the quality of feedback they give their peers. Students use the peer feedback to improve their report before submitting the final version for marking by a tutor.

The other set of laboratory exercises we have included are for a few courses that usually have face-to-face laboratory classes. Some of these were adapted from exercises we had designed for the online course. To make marking and feedback as efficient as possible, students were provided with a more structured, scaffolded activity in these courses. Regular drop-in sessions ran for these courses, where they could consult with a demonstrator about how to perform the experiments. This formed part of the laboratory program online; some of the labs also consisted of videos about how the data was collected, with data for students to analyse and simulations. [1] AAPT Committee on Laboratories, AAPT Recommendations for the Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Curriculum (AAPT, College park, MD, 2015).

How is the resource used

This resource would function well as a component of an online-only physics course aimed at first-year physics students. These at-home labs can be used by students to generate assessable reports, which, if marked timely by tutors, can provide useful formative feedback for students developing their experimental skills.

The at-home laboratory exercises developed for the face-to-face courses will be used for students who miss a lab due to public holidays or other reasons. This is especially useful if timetabling make-up labs is not possible.

Feel free to adapt any part of this resource for your own courses.

Student evaluation

Our online course, Everyday Physics, has been running since 2013. In that time, over 5000 students have completed the course. Students have given very positive feedback about this course and its laboratory component.

The face-to-face replacement labs were used as an online alternative to in-person labs in our larger physics courses, either for students who are unable to attend the lab in-person or for cases where classes must be cancelled. This was primarily the case for 2020 and 2021, where approximately 3000 students across 5 courses used these labs as their primary form of hands-on lab content. In this case, the labs were assigned weekly, and students were given the more structured reports. We find that student feedback is very positive, especially when these labs are paired with extensive contextualising; introductory videos from the lab staff, demonstrations of in-lab equivalents, etc.


Elizabeth Angstmann, UNSW,
Thomas Dixon, UNSW,
Kate Jackson, UNSW,
Michael de la Pena, 2020 UNSW Visiting Teaching Fellow

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