The opportunities provided by online education are amazing. Students can learn pretty much any topic, on their own time, and in their own space. As instructors in this new arena, we of course have to design the online materials so that they cover the important subject matter. And it’s up to the students to pay attention and do the work. But it’s really also up to us as course creators to make the online materials as interesting and engaging as possible. 

Creating Active Learning Experiences with Entertaining, Thought-Provoking Demos

My favorite physics teacher would regularly show up to class with some prop (a bowling ball, a bucket of sand, a long piece of pipe, other things odd and interesting). He’d use those to demonstrate the topic we were covering. For example, a bowling ball demonstrates mass and density, low rolling friction (on a hard polished surface), and other physical properties.

One of my calculus teachers brought a sheet of cloth into class one day. She had students hold it up to the blackboard where an arbitrarily wiggly enclosed shape had been drawn. She traced the shape on the cloth, and had a student cut it out with scissors. She had another student cut out one square inch of cloth. Using a balance scale borrowed from the Chemistry department, she had students carefully weigh the square inch, then we weighed the curvy cloth segment. We all divided the wiggly cloth weight by the square inch weight. É Voila! The area inside the wiggly curve in square inches had been calculated by a really innovative method. We went on to begin our introduction to Calculus Integrals.

You might not think that many of the topics you teach would yield to compelling demos. But the point of the calculus/sheet/weight demo above is: even topics that don’t seem to have an obvious demo capability might yield well to demos, if you’re creative about it. If you can incorporate demos into your video lectures and assignments, and encourage online students to do them at home, you’ve gone a long way toward including those students into your virtual (global) classroom.

As for my teaching, much of it is pretty demo-able. But I’m always thinking of new ways to make students think about what they’re learning. This shows me demoing oscillation using a mass and string (forming a pendulum) for my Physics-Based Sound Synthesis Course.

A string and a juggling ball make a pendulum to demonstrate oscillation.

Tips for Adding Compelling Demos to Your Online Courses:

  • Find things that lend naturally to demos, analogies, etc. Make demos for those.
  • Find concepts that students have trouble understanding. Think creatively about how to make demos for those.
  • Welcome your current and past students to help you think of means to create demos for these hard concepts.
  • Analogies are good too. If you can’t think of a demo, try to think of a parallel concept or phenomenon. Think “this is like that,” then make a demo of that.
  • Watch your videos and/or read the scripts for your lectures. Find stretches of time where there doesn’t seem to be as much action or movement. Figure out a way to put a demo in the middle of that slower part.
  • Above all, be creative!!