Your World is Your Lab: A MOOC for Introductory Physics

Michael Schatz, Georgia Institute of Technology

Your World is Your Lab


Most colleges and universities consider an instructional laboratory to be an essential component of an introductory science course. At first glance, offering a lab science MOOC — a lab that is Massive (potential student enrollments in the tens of thousands) and Open (anyone may sign up and participate without paying tuition or fees) and is integrated into an Online Course — would seem to be impossible. In a course that lives in cyberspace, where do students go for lab? By applying some mental jiu jitsu to this dilemma, we suggest a way to offer bona fide labs that are MOOC-compatible and, we argue, superior to the current instructional lab experience of many on-campus students.

In principle, an instructional lab should offer engaging, real world, hands-on experiences with scientific concepts and practices; in practice, introductory labs often fall short of this ideal. On-campus, students typically attend and perform labs in rooms that are expressly designed and specially equipped for the purpose; the separateness of this environment in conjunction with the oftentimes “cookbook” nature of student lab activities communicates the dual message that science stops happening once you step out of the laboratory, and that science has a script. Reinforcing this disconnectedness is the common practice at many colleges and university to operate the introductory lab independently from (or, at best, poorly coordinated with) the lecture component of the course. As a result, the overall impression conveyed by many on-campus labs is a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” attitude toward laboratory science — namely, the activities performed in the on-campus lab are largely unrelated to the real world and especially unrelated to the students’ “intuition” developed from their own personal experience.

Our MOOC, which emphasizes concepts and content typically covered in the first semester of calculus-based introductory physics, offers hands-on experience through what we call the “Your World is Your Lab” approach. The course (which is hosted by Coursera [1]) focuses on mechanics, the science of motion; students are guided to seek and to study examples of motion in their own surroundings. These inquiries require only one piece of lab equipment that almost all students already possess — the video camera on their cell phone (or, alternatively, the webcam on their laptop, or a dedicated video recorder — anything that can record digital video). For each lab, we instruct the students to study a general type of motion; for example, in the first lab on constant velocity motion, students are asked to observe an object that appears to be moving in a straight line at a fixed speed. After students capture motion observations on video, they use free, open-source software both to extract data from the video and to apply physics principles to build models that describe, predict, and visualize the observations. Each student reports his or her own findings by creating a video lab report and posting it online; these video lab reports are then distributed to the rest of the class for peer review. The process of presenting and evaluating video lab reports provides students with opportunities to practice important communication and critical thinking skills in a scientific context.

The MOOC labs are woven together with video lectures, textbook readings, homework, and quiz assignments and class forum postings. The lecture videos aim to attract and to hold student interest by focusing on a single topic in a short presentation (~10 min), by embedding in-video “clicker” questions, and by making extensive use of whiteboard animation. The course uses a well-known introductory physics text with a proven track record (Matter and Interactions, 3rd edition, by Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood) [2]; MOOC students have been provided free online access to the textbook by special arrangement with the publisher (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.). Students complete and submit homework assignments and course quizzes online using methods similar to those in wide use in on-campus courses. We also provide students access to an online forum thoroughly moderated by instructors and TAs; this forum provides the primary venue where students interact with each other as well as with helpful experts.

The physics MOOC has drawn from numerous prior contributions of other educators and education researchers in physics and in other STEM fields. Earlier work by Priscilla Laws and Robert Teese guided the use of video analysis in our MOOC labs [3]. Students in our MOOC analyze motion on video using the software tool, Tracker, which was developed and is maintained by Douglas Brown and is freely available from the Open Source Physics project [4]. Once the students have their motion observations, we then guide them in developing computational models which accurately predict that motion. The process of constructing models in the labs is inspired by the well-known Modeling Instruction methodology [5]; students construct computational models, which include 3D visualizations, using the open source software package VPython [6], which is an integral component of Chabay and Sherwood’s Matter and Interactions curriculum [2]. The labs provide opportunities for students to gain experience with important scientific practices highlighted in the framework for Next Generation Science Standards, including analyzing and interpreting data, developing and using models, computational thinking and evaluating/communicating scientific information [7]. Student evaluation of peers’ lab reports, inspired by prior work involving Calibrated Peer Review™ [8], enables both substantial practice with constructive critical evaluation of scientific communications and a practical method for providing timely, individual feedback on student lab work. Our goal in emphasizing peer review in our MOOC is not simply to provide our (many!) students with an adequate substitute for expert grading; we believe the peer review process itself is an important practice which every science student should experience.

The instructional materials developed for the MOOC are also being used on-campus at Georgia Tech to “flip” the classroom in a limited number of sections of calculus-based mechanics. In this approach, on-campus students view video lectures and perform lab activities outside of class. On-campus contact hours (one 3-hr period and three 50-minute periods weekly) are focused on face-to-face interactions emphasizing small group work on solving problems and small group live presentation of and feedback for lab reports drafts. In the face-to-face meetings with students, the instructors and teaching assistants help facilitate student group work on both problem solving and technical communication/evaluation. Our initial experience with the flipped classroom approach suggests helping teaching assistants to be good facilitators requires providing access to good training.

Developing, operating and sustaining a MOOC poses a number of substantial challenges. Content creation and course administration are very time-consuming, requiring the tireless efforts of several student, postdoctoral, and faculty collaborators. Large numbers of students sign up for the MOOC: 20113 enrolled in Summer 2013 and 16489 enrolled in Fall 2013. However, student participation rapidly drops within the first few weeks of each session; the number of students who complete the course successfully (final course grade of 70% or better) is relatively tiny: 107 students in Summer 2013 and 48 students in Fall 2013 earned a certificate of completion, which does not convey college credit. Free access by MOOC students to the course textbook was arranged on a trial basis; the terms for textbook access in future sessions are currently unresolved. Our MOOC platform of choice, which is still under development, currently has limited flexibility for homework and peer evaluation assignments; these constraints were partially overcome by using WebAssign™ in conjunction with custom software for facilitating peer grading.

A large amount of very granular data has been collected from the MOOC. The data include responses to standard concept inventory and survey instruments (the Force and Motion Concepts Inventory and the CLASS and E-CLASS attitudinal surveys), demographic data, anonymized location data and “clickstream” data which gives us a full, moment-by-moment record of every student’s interactions with every lecture video. This mountain of data will inform the future development of the MOOC, and enable us to answer a number of research questions. Our analysis is ongoing, and already yielding interesting insights. In sum, we are hopeful that experience with the MOOC will lead to long term positive impacts on learning for both on- and off-campus students.

Partial support by the NSF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the development of the MOOC is gratefully acknowledged.



[2] “Matter and Interactions”, R. Chabay & B. Sherwood (Wiley, 2010).

[3] “Physics with Video Analysis”, P. W. Laws, R. B. Teese, M. C. Willis, P. J. Cooney (Vernier, 2009).


[5]; M. Wells, et al., Am. J. Phys. 63, 606 (1995); R. Karplus, J. Res. Sci. Teach. 14, 169 (1977).


[7] “A Framework for K-12 Science Education”, National Research Council of the National Academies of Science and Engineering (2012). Available for download from:


Michael Schatz is a Professor of Physics at Georgia Tech. In 2013 he was named a Fellow of the APS for his work on complex fluid and pattern formation phenomena. He is also an active member of Georgia Tech’s Physics Education Research Group.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.