Quantum Mechanics for Everyone MOOC

In this project, I worked with two undergraduate students, Dylan Cutler and Lucas Riera-Barbosa, to develop computer-based animations that will be part of a broader interactive web-based tutorial to form the modules for a MOOC on quantum mechanics for nonscientists. The current initiative is to create one prototype module and then seek external funding for the project and will be debuted in the Physics MOOC run by Dedra Demaree in the Spring of 2015. We have chosen to animate the approach by Richard Feynman in his book QED to ultimately describe the two-slit experiment, which, as Feynman explains, contains all of the mystery of quantum mechanics. The animation involves drawing paths from a source to a detector that pass through a slit, timing the time for the photon to move on each path, which creates an arrow associated with the path, combining the arrows head to tail to create a final arrow, which is squared to give the probability. Our animations are based on earlier ones created by Ed Taylor (and still available on his website eftaylor.com), but now written in Javascript and designed to be both visually attractive and user friendly. We developed enough content to show the behavior of a single slit experiment including movies, interactive computer tutorials and questions. The work was tested by an alpha-testing group of about a dozen people in December of 2014. It was not used with any official Georgetown class. It is possible this module could be used as supplemental material for a class that I normally teach in the fall, Physics 153: Relativity and Quantum Physics, but it will be best suited for the nonscientist. One issue we found was that the way we implemented the Javascript library was not modular enough and was prone to glitches and bugs when used on different platforms, and so much of the semester was spent with a complete rewriting of the compute engine using modern programming guidelines that was carried out by Lucas, who has ten years of professional coding experience. Unfortunately, due to the timing requirements, we had to use the buggy version of the code with the alpha testers.

The intent of this project is to create an asynchronous MOOC, which requires delivering all content via technology. Technology forms the backbone for all course delivery, one cannot do it without the technological part. On the other hand, we do not want to create another MOOC that involves filmed lectures. We feel this is not using the internet capabilities in the best way to delivery course content especially technical content, and that was the motivation for creating the computer-based tutorials.

The eleven alpha testers who took the follow-up survey expressed both concerns and satisfaction with the compute engine. They identified problems that were already known to us about the bugginess of the original code and of the tediousness of parts of the exercise. They also, nearly unanimously, indicated that the computer animations helped them understand the material better than just reading it from a book, or as we can reasonably infer, hearing it told to them by a lecturer.

We have learned what some of the problems of the initial version of the code was. We were pleased to see that it looks like we are striking the right balance between movies, computer tutorials and questions in delivering the materials to the audience. We will further develop the project and incorporate it into the last week of Dedra's MOOC, and then we will take data that we generate from that to both improve the material we have already developed and to guide the further development of material so we can create a standalone MOOC on quantum mechanics. We have pending grant proposals both at the American Physical Society and at the National Science Foundation to fund further development of the project. If those are not successful, or if additional funding is needed, we might also seek out foundations for funding. We have no plans to communicate anything about the ITEL project per se because it is too preliminary in the results yet. But we do have plans for writing one or more papers on the quantum MOOC if we are able to successfully develop it.