Particle physics laboratory

Modeling Key Physics Lab Concepts Using Hexbug Nanos

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have forced many university students off campus and back home for an extended period. But how are students supposed to be able to participate in lab subjects, like undergraduate physics, from a computer screen?

It is difficult to learn laboratory physics in front of a computer screen. Credit: 10,000 Hours/Getty Images

An innovative response came in the form of small robotic bugs, known as Hexbug Nanos™.

Students at Pomona College in California, armed only with a bunch of Hexbug Nanos posted by course organizers, a smart phone and common items found around the house, have been able to engage in scientific research since at their home.

In particular, the small robots allowed undergraduate students to model notoriously difficult-to-visualize concepts, such as the laws dictating the movement of electrons in a wire and the behavior of gases under temperature and pressure.

“We found that the pandemic-inspired reliance on simple, home-made experiments, while minimizing the use of sophisticated equipment, enabled students to more effectively achieve lab-based learning goals such as design, implementation and troubleshooting of an experimental device,” says Professor Janice Hudgins, who co-authored the research paper published in the American Journal of Physics which describes the new teaching method.

Students began with a simple experiment demonstrating the ideal gas law which describes how the pressure, volume and temperature of a gas are related. They used a rectangular cardboard box and a movable partition to divide the box into two chambers. A different number of insects were placed on each side and allowed to move freely. As the insects hit the wall, it moved.

In this scenario, the insects represented bouncing gas molecules, with the chamber containing more insects representing higher pressure gas.

By filming the process, the students were able to follow the movement of the septum over time and visualize the behavior of the system when the gases finally reached equilibrium – a point where the pressures in the two chambers equalized.

The molecules of an ideal gas bounce off the walls and between them in a chamber. Nano Hexbugs were used to simulate this. Credit: Scientific photo library/Getty Images

After gaining experience with the Hexbugs by modeling an ideal gas, the students then embarked on a semester-long research project to study typical statistical mechanics and concepts of electrical conduction. The Drude model is a classical mechanics concept that describes the motion of electrons in a wire and the students modeled it by releasing the Hexbug ‘electrons’ at the top of a tilted box, noting how they were scattered during their journey down through the “flaws” of the metal – represented by small cardboard rings attached to the box.

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“The Hexbug experiment provides a clearly visible, large-scale model of carrier transport in a yarn that is consistent with the Drude model,” Hudgings said.

Researchers suggest that creatively using simple equipment like Hexbugs to demonstrate key concepts is an effective way to engage students and enable them to perform investigative research, whether in the lab or on the job. home, and can be easily adapted to other similar subjects such as biology. , biophysics, physical chemistry and electromagnetism.