In the quarter that recently ended I taught The Physics of Energy and the Environment, a course for non-science-major undergraduates at the University of Oregon (UO) that I’ve taught before, though never before as an online, Zoom-based course. (For those reading this in the far-off future: It’s April 2021, and we’re a bit over a year into the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With a few exceptions, classes at UO are virtual.) In part for the “instructor reflection” we’re encouraged to submit at the end of each term, in part for my own notes, and in part to have something to point people to if I want to share my experiences, I thought I’d write about how the course went. This is a long post, the totality of which will probably be of interest to no one, but now it’s here for future reference! (The Zoom section may be the most useful for others.)
Key points: (i) the most engaged quarter of the students were as, or possibly more, engaged as they would have been in a regular in-person class; (ii) the median student was much less engaged, and about a quarter of the students barely interacted with the course material at all; (iii) teaching via Zoom is more tiring and less pleasant than teaching in person.
The goals of the course are to convey an understanding of how modern civilization uses energy, how fundamental physical principles govern activities like transportation, and how energy use and environmental impacts are intrinsically linked, especially with respect to climate change.
Here, I’ll list various aspects of the course and my perceptions of outcomes, with a very subjective rating of each one, with +5 being great, and -5 being awful.
Course structure: +4
The course met for two 90-minute live sessions each week, via Zoom. There were 63 students. As always, I designed the class to have a lot of different components to provide both practice and assessments:
- weekly homework assignments
- weekly quizzes
- reading assignments and associated quizzes for almost every class
- two exams
- “post-class notes” due after every class, in which students wrote a paragraph summary of what the key points of the day’s class were.
Description and weights for all these things are in the syllabus. As intended, the variety of components seems beneficial — it reduces the stress of exams and, more importantly, requires sustained interaction with the course material. I’ve assigned “post-class notes” in several different classes now. This can fail: if simply graded on completion it accomplishes nothing, so one does have to actually assess whether students are extracting and rephrasing key points. This term was a bit too lenient, but not bad.
At the end of every term, I look at how performance on each of the different components correlates with overall course performance (excluding the contribution from that component). This time, reading quizzes and homework had the strongest correlation (Pearson r = 0.8). Post-class notes had the weakest correlation (r = 0.45), the only piece lower than 0.7.
Zoom (and Zoom tips!): 0
Teaching through Zoom is challenging, and it highlights how much information I get from seeing facial expressions and body language in a normal class.
Some things that I found helped, both in this class and in other virtual interactions like seminars:
- Writing in real time. Seeing words drawn on the screen is far more absorbing than seeing static words (or even magically appearing words) on a Powerpoint slide. This is true in in-person classes as well — I’m a great fan of document cameras — but it seems even more so virtually. I had used a document camera last term, but for this class I used a stylus on a screen, writing, pointing, circling, etc. I underline and circle a lot on the screen. When giving research seminars like this, several people have told me that it works very well.
- Finding a face. Most students don’t turn on their video, and it’s hard to talk to a faceless wall. I try to find someone with their video on, ideally someone who seems expressive and enthusiastic, and pin their video on Zoom. This helps a lot, and I was lucky to have a delightfully expressive student who I often pinned.
- Polls. Getting feedback from students is hard, even in a normal (large) class. In-person, I use clickers. On Zoom, I use its polls, several per class session. I just set this up with generic A, B, C, D choices, so that I can apply the same poll to whatever is on the screen, or whatever I spontaneously decide to ask.
A Zoom-related thing that did not work well: Breakout rooms. In an in-person class I ask questions in which students talk to or work with a few others around them, during which I wander around chatting and seeing how people are doing. Recapitulating this in breakout rooms was a failure, both from my own perspective and what I heard from a few students — too many students often just sat silently, cameras off (see the disengagement part below), a form of non-participation that wouldn’t happen in person. Also, I couldn’t discretely wander or see how people were doing, and so I lost any sense of feedback.
Overall, I’m scoring the Zoom aspects of the course as a zero — not a disaster, but not great.
Live demos: +4
A few times, I did live demos via Zoom, bringing to my office (from which I held class) things like hand-crank generators and little steam engines (thanks to my department’s wonderful demo room). This was a hit — the students loved it, especially my demonstration of thermoelectric generators dipped in boiling water and liquid nitrogen. Of course, I could pre-record videos, or show others’ videos; in principle this is equivalent, or better in terms of production quality, but in practice people (myself included) like to see things live.
I’m scoring this as a 4 rather than 5 because it took some effort to get the demos set up in my office — much more than would be the case normally. Two or three times a term is the upper limit of my willingness to do this.
Real-world examples: 5
Especially for classes for non-science-majors, it’s crucial to relate class materials to real-world contexts. This is obviously important for “Physics of Energy and the Environment,” and every time I’ve taught this course, I’ve included a lot of contemporary articles (especially from The Economist), and current data. I think this is especially important for this online implementation, since it helps with student engagement — I got several very positive comments about the real-world intersections of the material. It would be possible, though terrible, to teach this class as a dry exploration of fundamental physical concepts related to energy, thermodynamics, etc. Of course, it takes work to do find appropriate, accessible, and interesting material. — just updating various graphs led me down various burrows of datasets — and energy issues aren’t even close to my area of research/expertise. But it’s important, and interesting as well.
“Learning glass” videos: 3
I recorded some videos using a “learning glass” so that students could see me along with things I’m writing. I used these for some of the “reading” assignments, and occasionally for other things. Here’s a snapshot of what it looked like. Students liked this — maybe because it’s stylishly futuristic — as has been documented elsewhere. (I also commented on this in a post a year ago, before trying it.)
Energy (mine, not the course topic): 0
Even normally, teaching a general-education, non-science-majors course is tiring — each class has to be an interactive performance, to capture people’s attention and motivate them, while also reacting spontaneously to the outcomes of activities while still keeping to the overall path. Via Zoom, it’s even more tiring. I think this is both because there are a lot of small targets to rapidly shift between focusing on (slides, chat, faces, my notes, …) and because I have to portray even more enthusiasm than usual to get students engaged. We pay attention to a person in front of us much more than a head on a screen, especially if our screens provide other distractions.
I’m scoring this a zero because I think being energetic helped a lot, but it was grueling — I don’t want to be doing this every term!
Somewhat related: I’m not really sure why, but the amount of time it took to prepare for class also seemed higher than usual, maybe because I had to think more about how to do things, or maybe because I was just inefficient.
Engagement and feedback: -3
There are always students in a course like this who do little or no work, have no interest in the class, and who often fail. I often wonder why they are at the university — they’d probably be happier doing something else, and they’re not getting anything useful out of an increasingly expensive experience. I increasingly think that society’s attitude that almost everyone should go to college, and should do so immediately after high school, causes a lot of frustration and harm. In any case, this fraction was much higher for the Zoom version of my course — perhaps a quarter rather than 10%. For a live “clicker” poll everyone responds; for a Zoom poll it’s about 75%, and I would bet that the missing 25% are glancing at the class video only sporadically, at best. Similar numbers come up for other statistics — post-class notes, video watching, etc. It’s hard to go through multiple sessions of this without a sense of despair that the whole exercise is a waste of time, energy, and money for so many people. It also makes teaching difficult — one can’t rely on a minimal level of engagement to enable students to work with each other, one doesn’t know whether the lower-than-usual level of questions or responses that often seemed to come up is because of lack of attention or more justifiable mis-understanding.
On the plus side, the students who were engaged seemed very engaged — there was a cohort with lively questions and comments in chat, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so many nice comments (in email and via Zoom) from students who liked the course a lot, in terms of both content and delivery.
What I hear consistently from other faculty is that online engagement is high in upper level courses, and low in lower-level or unspecialized courses like this one. This makes sense.
The end of term evaluations were odd — on the one hand quite positive (“the best professor I have ever had” !), but on the other, sparse — only five students out of 63 filled out the evaluation form! I’m told this isn’t uncommon, but it is still unfortunate from the perspective of getting feedback. I think it doesn’t help that the university’s questions are now oddly cryptic. The first thing to comment on is “The inclusiveness of this course,” which I’m curious whether most students could define. Then there are questions on course content, organization, etc. I was praised for starting and ending class on time, which is bizarre — are there people who don’t? How inconsiderate…
The course covers several energy-related topics, especially transportation and climate change, introducing the basic physics of energy and power as needed. This term we looked a bit more at nuclear power than in past instances; students asked for it, and I wanted to as well. It’s hard to cover nuclear power without being dismayed by our low use of it — it’s clean, well-understood, abundant, and extremely safe. This link gives an excellent graph of death rates per energy extracted, even including disasters like Chernobyl, kills far fewer people than fossil fuel pollution, and doesn’t produce CO2 emissions. In terms of physics, it’s phenomenal energy density means that nuclear waste, while important, is tiny in volume — about one-tenth of a soda-can’s worth per person per year. Students seemed utterly perplexed by why we don’t use nuclear power more, and there’s no good answer for them, other than the inertia from historical fears.
I’ll try to expand this in future years. I’d also like to cover geoengineering. (We give it just a few minute mention.) Ten weeks, however, is very short, and our pace is quite slow. If more students came in who could look at numbers without becoming paralyzed, we could do more, but as it is, a lot of work and time goes into overcoming this. A story for another day…
Pre-class Nature videos: +5
In in-person classes I play music before class starts — enjoyable, and its end is a subtle signal that it’s time to start. For Zoom classes, I played pieces of the PBS Nature series. This was a big hit — I love them, and the students did also, often commenting on this in chat. I might continue this in future in-person classes, so apparently I’ve learned something useful from the pandemic!
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy; April 16, 2021