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The physics community explores and explains the physical world through a blend of theoretical and experimental studies. The future of physics as a discipline depends on training of students in both the theoretical and experimental aspects of the field.
However, while student learning within lecture courses has been the subject of extensive research, lab courses remain relatively under-studied. Until recently, there was little data available that addresses the effectiveness of physics lab courses at encouraging students to recognize the nature and importance of experimental physics within the discipline as a whole.
To address this gap, we present the first large-scale study of undergraduate physics lab courses in the US through analysis of students' responses to a research-validated assessment designed to investigate students' beliefs about the nature of experimental physics. We find that students often enter and leave physics lab courses with ideas about experimental physics that are inconsistent with the views of practicing experimental physicists, and this trend holds at both the introductory and upper-division levels. These finding have implications for the recruitment, retention, and adequate preparation of students in physics.