Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Death of 8.01 and 8.02

MIT is doing away with its lecture=based introductory physics courses. One of my most excruciating memories from my intensely checkered career at MIT was attending 8.01 lectures in introductory mechanics in the dreaded, auditorium-like room 26-100. During the lectures on conservation of momentum, the professor set up an air track, smashed a couple of shuttles together to demonstrate his points, and then droned on with the rest of the lecture--while leaving the air track running, with the shuttles bouncing back and forth.

Now, it's impossible to get an air track completely level, and friction eventually does slow things down. So after 15 or 20 minutes, the shuttles would ever, so, sloooowly, coast to spot in the middle of the track, stop, and then, even, more, sloooowly, slide back in the other direction. There were 500 freshmen in that auditorium, all of them with the same wincing expression on their faces, watching that damned shuttle come to a stop. They all had similar expressions of relief on their faces when it started moving again.

Forget waterboarding and stress positions and prolonged isolation. Just put your enemny combatant in front of that air track and you'll have him spilling everything he knows in about two hours.

MIT is going to a high-tech, participatory approach to teaching its introductory physics courses. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out. This looks like a significant innovation in teaching technology, which is ultimately the way how we solve our education problems.

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