Reporter Column: Why You Should Try a Hands-on Project
Reporter Column: Why You Should Try a Hands-on Project
  • Reporter Park Eu-gene
  • 승인 2023.01.07 00:00
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Editor-in-Chief Park Eu-gene (PHYS)
Park Eu-gene (PHYS)

From my youth, I was a bookworm - I loved reading.  My parents said that I tended to learn about the world through books. Up to my high school days, I thought everything I could ever learn was written somewhere in a book in the library. I was not the type for hands-on projects or doing experiments. In particular, I disliked the grunt work of measuring something over and over, just to get a ‘good’ result that agreed with already established laws and theories. Or worse, the experiment would infuriatingly yield the ‘wrong’ result, in which case I had to do the whole thing again.
Perhaps what changed my mind was that I started gaining research experience in plasma physics. I still remember the first day of going to the lab. That day, a post-doc student who was about to leave soon was explaining to other graduate students about how to use every piece of lab equipment in the lab (which was a lot, so this took a couple of days). The lab was full of nuts and bolts, optical instruments, mysterious plasma-making devices, and much, much more. The lab seemed to me like an inventor’s workshop. Then I realized, I had lived my life without having the slightest idea of how to use these electronic items and equipment. Inspired by my research experience, I wanted to make a plasma-making device with my own hands and understand how it worked. So I started a UGRP (Undergraduate Group Research Project) to design and make a model pulsed plasma thruster for CubeSat applications.
Through my UGRP and through additional research experience in laser-plasma interactions, I realized there are many things you can’t learn through reading. Reading other people’s books and research papers only lets you learn about their finalized results. But behind those glossy and polished writings, I realized there were lessons learned from many failed attempts that simply do not make it to paper. When my experiments failed, this led to more questions. I had to reason scientifically to interpret the results, come up with a theory of why that particular result came out, and verify it with more experiments. To do this, I had to re-study what I had learned in classes such as plasma physics, electromagnetism, femtosecond lasers, optics, etc. The experience complemented learning through textbook-based lectures and made what I learned in class more memorable. I also gained practical experience in using lab equipment such as oscilloscopes, waveform generators, and lasers. In short, there is much to be learned by getting your hands dirty doing experiments.
Trying a hands-on project of your own initiative is great because you alone decide what you want to learn. In my case, because I was doing projects that I had started and not a project that someone told me to do to get grades, I was more motivated to remain curious and to take responsibility for continuing the research to the end. Furthermore, in class, I knew exactly what the result must be, but in research, I did not. I found this very exciting. Though experiments were still mostly grunt work, my curiosity kept me engaged and interested. I grew to enjoy doing experiments.
From the UGRP and research experience, I now believe hands-on projects should be encouraged to complement traditional lectures and experiments. There is something magical about creating something you learned in a textbook in real life. So why not try a hands-on project this winter break?