Synchronous classical mechanics brainstorming

In the summer of 2014 I plan to offer an online course called “PHYS 5930 Theoretical Mechanics.” It’s an online version of the course we require our majors to take, though I’m not sure how many Hamline students will sign up, as we make our in-class version work well in their schedule. I want to start brainstorming how the class will go now that 2014 has begun.

My goal is to see if a synchronous online class can meet my expectations for learning outcomes. I’m very leery of asynchronous online courses (using discussion boards, etc) as I’ve taught a few of those in the past. I figured I wanted to try it with a course that didn’t have a lab, and our advanced theory courses seemed to be the best fit.

One big problem is enrollment. If too many (any?) Hamline students sign up, it’ll lower the enrollment in our in-person classes to the point where the dean’s office will be mad. So I’d really like to push this for non-Hamline students. It seems weird to do that, though, so it may be that this is doomed from the start.

But, I still want to get down some thoughts and questions that I have about this course in case it gets some wind in its sails.


When I teach theoretical mechanics, I have the students do an awful lot of computational work using Mathematica. Since students will be registered for the class, they will have access to Mathematica under our license. That’s cool that they can do stuff for class, but less cool that they’ll lose access at the end of the course. I suppose I could embrace something like Sage or python or whatever, but I’ve already indicated what’s missing there.

Blackboard Collaborate

I have access to a 24-7 Blackboard Collaborate room that I would use for all the synchronous stuff. We’d meet and we’d be able to talk, draw, and share code live. I’ve done a lot of this and I’m pretty sure the software is robust enough for what I need.

A typical meeting: gather, tackle a hard problem in small groups (called rooms), bring the rooms back together to share and compare, repeat. Between classes reading and scasts will be assigned, though I might flip the flip like I’ve done recently.


At Hamline the prerequisites for the course are general physics 2 and differential equations (and, by extension, general physics 1, calc 1, calc 2, and multivariable calculus). Note what’s not in that list: Linear Algebra (I’ve dealt with that here, here, and here), Modern Physics (not really a problem for this), or any other advanced course. If that doesn’t overlap with other school’s issues, then the enrollment won’t be there.

Standards-based grading

I’ll definitely continue my use of student-voice standards-based grading. Students will make videos and submit them for all their assessments. This has really worked well with my in-class courses, and I don’t see that being worse online.


I really need the students to have the ability to draw on the digital whiteboard in Collaborate. So, I’ll force them to purchase something to get that to work. Here’s what I suggest which only costs $50. To get students to do that, I’ll need the textbook to be free. I pulled that off last spring when I taught the same course in person.


So what do you think. Please poke some holes in this initial offering so I can make it better. Here are some starters for you:

  1. Cool idea, but I think you should use this tech instead . . .
  2. This is a crappy idea. Online learning just doesn’t work and here’s why …
  3. This could be a cool idea, but you really need to add this twist …
  4. I want to know more about how you’d use the “rooms” in collaborate …
  5. My students might be interested, but for it to transfer to my school you’d have to add/subtract …
  6. Mathematica, really?! What are you, a fool?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in online class, syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Synchronous classical mechanics brainstorming

  1. bretbenesh says:

    At the risk of being a little tactless: If you are hoping to not have too many Hamline students, is the point of this class to generate revenue?

    I have not been too thrilled with the idea of online courses thus far, but this is mainly because I have thought only of asynchronous courses; your course is intriguing, and I am interested to hear how it turns out.

    I would add a quick vote of support for Sage. But I am not familiar enough with Mathematica to know why NDSolve is a lot less syntax than
    x = var(‘x’)
    y = function(‘y’, x)
    f = desolve(diff(y,x) + y – 1, y, ics=[10,2]); f

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      It’s certainly true that our summer program is a lot about generating revenue, and I’d certainly get paid if I did this. For me, though, I’m more interested in the utility of a synchronous online course, and I want to try something to get some data in hand.

      As for Sage, I’ve played with it enough to do some desolve stuff, but my issue is the easy mix of algebraic and numeric stuff that Mathematica can do. Can I define the kinetic energy, take analytical partial derivatives, and then do numeric work on the result? I’m happy to know that I can bug you a little to learn, though 🙂

  2. Joss Ives says:

    Hey Andy. You might want to apply a hard cap of 12 students (or even less) to the course so that you can be really active in going from room to room and providing guidance, helping with group dynamics, etc. It would be really nice if Mathematica had a collaborative notebook so that students could all interact in the same space. You might want to use some of the group roles stuff (such as that from the University of Minnesota) where one person is the recorder (typer), one is the manager and one is the skeptic and then it makes some sense that there is one person screen-sharing their notebook while the other provide the appropriate input. I vaguely remember the Matter and Interaction VPython labs having a system along these lines as well.

    Honestly, courses like this are probably going to be common and necessary in the future so that smaller departments have high enough enrollment in their courses to not have them canceled by administrators. Having multiple smaller institutions partner and take turns offering different courses can help leverage differences in local expertise, improve the variety of course offerings in smaller departments, etc.

    Plus, Andy, you are a great person to try this out since you already have a lot of the necessary expertise in terms of working in the online environment.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I’m not sure if collaborative editing would work well, but we can always share a screen and take over the mouse/keyboard of the shared screen. I do a lot of the roles stuff in my in person class, but hadn’t really thought of doing it here. It makes sense, I think.

      As for the cap, I’m not really worried about too many people signing up. I guess I’ll need to think about putting a cap on to be safe, though.

  3. There is definately a great deal to find out about this subject.
    I like all the points you’ve made.

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