By Kimberly Peterson

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Everyday homework just isn't enough for some UA physics students.

A group of these University of Arizona students have created their own lab to study anything from nuclear physics to electrical rocket propulsion.

The idea for the lab, which now resides in the basement of the Physics and Atmospheric Sciences building, came back in 1992 in a Society of Physics Students meeting, said Jim Collins, a physics graduate student.

The Society of Physics Students is the UA student branch of the American Institute of Physics. Collins currently serves as the branch's president.

"We started talking about the fact that there are a lot of physics students graduating with no marketable skills," Collins said. "Doing homework doesn't really qualify a student to do something in the real world."

After talking with physics professor William Bickel, the students received approval to open a lab where they could finely tune skills they will use later in life, Collins said.

The Physics department then gave the students lab space in the basement and the Faculty of Science contributed $1,000 to buy materials.

"We have had professors throughout the department loaning and donating equipment," Collins said.

The lab is open to anyone, and about 25 students regularly use it for their own experiments, Collins said. The students as a whole chose electric rocket propulsion to study this semester.

"It's absolutely necessary that students get their hands on experimental work at an early age," Bickel said. "If you're going to be a physicist, you are going to have to build or modify some research equipment."

Students in this lab also have fun with the independent research, he said.

"They're blowing themselves up and electrocuting each other and making all kinds of noise," he said. "If they get stuck, they go find a faculty member that helps them out, which is fantastic."

And the research done in this lab is different from ordinary classroom labs, said Robert Thews, acting Physics department head.

"Any extra experience students can get is a plus," Thews said.

Students in the lab have made impressive progress, Collins said.

"We have freshmen students who after one semester know more about vacuum systems than most of the graduate students in the department know," he said.

At the beginning of the semester, four freshmen rebuilt a vacuum chamber from scratch in two days, Collins said.

"I think I've learned more in the lab than in any of my classes," said Robert Thompson, a physics and astronomy freshman.

With funding and guidance, Collins said students in other departments could also create their own undergraduate lab.

But lack of research space would be one obstacle hindering chemistry students from doing this, said Steve Brown, a chemistry lab coordinator.

The Chemistry department often accomodates students' needs by matching them with a research professor that would provide mentoring, Brown said.

The Molecular and Cellular Biology department already offers opportunities for undergraduate student research. said Samuel Ward, MCB department head. Read Next Article