Physics made easy?

New Web-based teaching tool to feature a 'virtual' version of legendary, helpful MIT professor


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Many of the 700-plus Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshmen who take the introductory physics class known as 8.01 each year have wished its legendary, somewhat eccentric professor, Walter Lewin, would materialize at 3 a.m. to help out with late-night studying sessions.

Thanks to an anonymous $735,000 grant to the Institute, that fantasy can become a reality of sorts.

With the anonymous gift plus $250,000 in matching funds, the MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES) will create a first-of-its-kind World Wide Web site featuring a virtual Professor Lewin, available around the clock to those stumped by static equilibrium and flummoxed by force.

"The Web-based learning environment will allow students to feel like they have Professor Lewin as their personal desktop tutor," said Richard C. Larson, professor and director of CAES and principal investigator on the project.

"I have always wanted to expand the usefulness of my TV help sessions," said Professor Lewin, who provides videotaped physics help sessions over MIT's campus-wide cable TV network and is the only faculty member featured on the official Class of 2001 T-shirt. "Students need direct help when they are doing problem sets and studying for exams. These new digital technologies allow a 'virtual me' to be with them as a teacher and a friend during these critical times. This is an incredible new approach to teaching."

Once the 8.01 web-based system is completed and tested at MIT, Larson said CAES plans to offer it, possibly for a fee, to high school Advanced Placement physics students and physics students at other universities who feel they would benefit from this kind of supplement to more traditional means of physics teaching and learning.

"In a sense, the project is exploring whether new digital multimedia technologies can increase by an order of magnitude or more the extent of 'face-to-face' contact that a student has with his or her professor," Professor Larson said.

Professor Larson and Physics Professor Marc A. Kastner, head of the physics department, said that the gift and its required matching funds will result in an unprecedented $1 million for this unusual two-year project.

The Web-based learning environment will simulate a question-and-answer session that might occur during Professor Lewin's office hours. The student would select from a menu of frequently asked questions or submit a new question.

Not simply a FAQ video archive, the site will store second level ("follow on") questions as well to simulate a conversation. Professor Lewin's videotaped, digitized answers (stored on a terabyte videoserver donated by IBM) to existing questions will appear on the student's computer via compressed streaming video, while new questions would be fielded on-line by teaching assistants. (Answers to the most frequently asked new questions will be used to enhance the archive every few months.)

If a student needs still more help, the program will point to indexed segments of Professor Lewin's videotaped 8.01 lectures and relevant sections of an on-line physics textbook.

The web pages also will contain written solutions to problem sets, solutions worked out by Professor Lewin on video, student-created animations and simulations and links to related physics sites on the Web.

"This project may create the most advanced on-line tutor for Newtonian physics," Professor Kastner said.

The Physics Department and CAES already have proposals under review to work with Physics Professor John Belcher on applying web-based animation, simulation and visualization to teaching tools for his 8.02 course on electromagnetism--the other course open to freshmen seeking to meet their first-year physics requirement.


Topics: Media Lab, Physics, Technology and society, Education, teaching, academics

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