Healthy and unhealthy brain states – what role does electrical conductivity play?

Australian Institute of Physics Congress

A research team in New Zealand hopes to understand the physical changes that underpin the abrupt switches in brain activity between being healthy and awake, sleeping, or having a seizure.

Marcus Wilson, a biophysicist from University of Waikato, reported on the team’s efforts to understand such brain states as natural sleep, unconsciousness and seizures by using electrical measurement technology linked with computer modelling.

Further information:

A mixed ‘cookbook’ and student-designed laboratory course at The University of Waikato in 2010

Marcus Wilson1, 1Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Waikato, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand

Abstract summary:

We discuss an approach to a second-year undergraduate physics class involving a combination of ‘cookbook’-style instructions and student designed laboratories. Students learn both to use equipment and implement good experimental methods.



In second year undergraduate Experimental Physics classes at The University of Waikato, students have typically had detailed instructions to follow. This has partly been because much of the equipment used, such as interferometers, vacuum lines and oscilloscopes, is new to the students, and they are yet to have mastery of it. However, such a ‘cookbook’ style of practical class has long been recognized as not being the optimal way in which students learn practical physics [1, 2]. In this presentation, we report on a trial of a mixed approach to laboratories, where students are first introduced to the apparatus with traditional-style detailed instructions, then, in a later session, are required to use the apparatus as part of an experiment for which no detailed instructions are given [3]. That is, the students must develop their own experimental method [2].


A focus group of students from the 2009 course has identified that students appreciate the significance of carefully planning a methodology, but are unsure of how to do so themselves. The aim of the intervention in 2010 has been to give students confidence in planning and implementing successful methodologies themselves. At the start of the course, experimental methodology is discussed as a class and modelled by a teacher during a laboratory session so that students gain some idea of what is required. Students then perform pairs of experiments; each pair first has a cookbook’ style laboratory in which students learn to use the equipment, and then a laboratory using this equipment in which they must design the methodology and choose how to analyze their results. In this way, students get the advantage of having to think through the whole process themselves, but also gain experience using new equipment under guidance. At the end of the course, students are given a practical test in which they must design and implement a methodology to make a simple measurement and process results during a three hour time frame. A focus group is convened at the end of the course to allow students’ experiences to be discussed.


There are several constraints on this implementation, such as shortage of equipment, time available for classes, and available supervision, meaning that the chances the students have to develop their own methodologies are limited. Students find this approach difficult, but begin to develop planning, critical thinking and analysis skills that were lacking at the beginning of this course, and were not present for year groups using a fully ‘cookbook’ approach.


[1] Prescott, J. R. & Anger, C. D. (1970). Removing the “cook book” from freshman physics laboratories. American Journal of Physics, 38(1), 58-64.

[2] Etkina, E., Murthy, S., & Zou, X. (2006). Using introductory labs to engage students in experimental design. American Journal of Physics, 74(11), 979-986.

[3] Karelina, A., & Etkina, E. (2007). Acting like a physicist: Student approach study to experimental design. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 3, 020106.


Marcus Wilson