Online Teaching Astrophysics: A conversation with Ross Lockwood

At Onlea we create content with subject matter experts to deliver quality online learning across the globe. Meet Dr. Ross Lockwood, one of the instructors who soon will bring us Astrophysics 101: Visiting a Black Hole.

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Ross Lockwood is a scientist with a passion for learning, experimentation, and scientific outreach. He graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Science in Honors Physics, and a Doctorate in Condensed Matter Physics, after researching the properties of silicon quantum dots. Outside of academia, Ross has served as systems and communications engineer on the NASA-funded HI-SEAS Mars Simulation, a spacesuit tester for the Project PoSSUM microgravity simulation, and as a guinea pig for civilian spaceflight experiences under launch acceleration forces.

Ross is part of the team developing a Massive Open Online Course called Astro 101: Black Holes, which is expected to launch in the summer of 2018.

What inspired you to study Physics?

One of my passions is building things and taking them apart I think I've just taken it to a more fundamental level. My interest in physics is really about understanding the way everything works, which means I rely a lot on fundamental physics concepts. Curiosity drives me to understand how stellar-fusion works, how crystallinity of materials gives them electronic properties, and yes, even understanding why the sky is blue. My interest in physics is incredibly broad. It ranges from astrophysics and cosmology down to particle physics and nanotechnology.

Ross-Air Photo Courtesy of Ross Lockwood

Why did you want to teach the world about Black Holes?

Black holes are among the least understood objects in the Universe. Part of that reason is that they are so incredibly dense, both quantum mechanics and general relativity fail to describe them. Even my discipline, Condensed Matter Physics, breaks down when we talk about super-high density things, like Neutron Stars. Black holes go a step further- rending the fabric of spacetime itself, creating headaches for the scientists studying them. Black holes are really kind of an end point in understanding an extreme part of the Universe, and both learning and teaching about them is just terribly fascinating.

Who is Astro 101: Black Holes for?

Astro-Team Instructor Team of upcoming course Astrophysics 101: Visiting a Black Hole

We really want to make Astro 101: Black Holes a course that anybody, from kids aged 9 to 90 year olds and beyond. This makes it an interesting teaching challenge: we want to appeal to a younger learners, lapsed learners, while still being a competitive core component of an accredited university course.

How different is your experience teaching online compared to teaching in a classroom setting?

An online course feels more intimate because you know that the only thing separating you from your learners is time, and their computer screen. Since online courses can have a huge number of students enrolling at vastly different times, engaging every single person becomes a challenge. Luckily, we know that the learners we are producing this course for are dedicated to the challenge, and our role is to facilitate the content. So, outside of online teaching being completely different than traditional learning, I strive to make the most engaging content to explain the concepts.

When I am giving a lesson on camera I really try to connect with the learner sitting behind the screen of their computer or their tablet.

What challenges do you encounter teaching in classroom that you have overcome with online teaching?

The one part of classroom teaching that I miss is the student interaction in the classroom, I like to be interrupted. Since that’s not possible with online courses, I've adopted a style that emphasizes the parts of the course that I find interesting and funny. Jokes can convey information in a very broad and general sense so that feeling isn't lost on the learner.

I think the other real benefit of online courses is that it encourages focus. When a learner sits down for the course, they aren’t just staring at a screen with their headphones on. They can pause the lesson to look up a keyword, or revisit an old concept. They can find other learners and share things that interest them. Above all, online courses seed a person’s curiosity.

Ross-Astronaut-Gear Photo Courtesy of Ross Lockwood

What do you consider are the key factors for successful online courses?

Understanding the new modality of teaching for online learners. For me, that means trying to establish a style that lends itself towards facilitating a more interactive learning process. So we do ask a lot of rhetorical questions and sometimes we ask leading questions. But we always try to provide an answer right then and there, so that we never leave you with a cliffhanger. We want the course to flow from section to section so that the learner doesn’t become intimidated as more difficult material is encountered.

We need to think hard about who is watching and what their needs are. Understanding things like when, where, and with whom, are our learners watching? I’m most excited to hear about young learners pairing up with parents and grandparents.

As far as timing is concerned making sure that our lessons are in small enough chunks that someone can watch a lesson on a short commute. Making sure that we're not intimidating students by the length of the course, or the length of a module. But then we also think about things like age, education and even regional vocabulary, because this is an English course. The majority of our learners for Astro 101: Black Holes will be from Canada or America, and choosing an appropriate word to make sure that the meaning is conveyed across all English speaking countries is important too, that’s a huge challenge. For example, we can’t just tell people how cold it is in Edmonton, since many of them have not visited. So instead, we try to convey the harsh and blistering cold that catches your breath and freezes your eyelashes when we’re talking about the weather in Edmonton.

How do you convey your message in a field that might seem intimidating for some audience?

Not only are black holes exciting and intriguing objects, in some sense, they are very simple objects. Scientists characterize them using only three numbers: mass, spin, and charge, which allows us to predict their behavior trillions of years into the future. When you talk about something that should be simpler than a black hole, like a star, there's all kinds of additional knowledge which describe changes over its lifetime. At the end of the day, developing analogies for black holes is much easier than it is for a star.

A nearly perfect analogy for a black hole in spacetime, is the whirlpool the next time you drain your bathtub!

On top of that, there are a lot of “I don’t knows” in black hole physics. We’ve got concepts like the Black Hole Information Paradox which says information doesn’t get destroyed going into a black hole, but no one has an answer which explains what happens to it. It’s an exciting field of physics, and I think that’s one of the reasons it appeals to everyone: black holes are really strange.

You lived 120 days in a simulated Mars outpost, have you been always interested in going to Mars?

Ross-Simulated-Mars Photo Courtesy of Ross Lockwood

The short answer is yes, I would be interested in going to Mars! But life tends to get in the way of these things, and spaceflight is all about timing. My partner and I are getting married in early 2018. She often says, “I love you to the moon and back” which I interpret to mean that I can't go to Mars. I can only go as far as the Moon. So if it happens that there is an opportunity for me to go to the Moon or even for me to go to Mars, I'm afraid I have to limit myself to the near Earth environment.

What do you enjoy the most of working with a studio like Onlea to produce online learning?

Onlea provides a strong foundational design language that we can use to express ourselves. The designers at Onlea are taking the responsibility for the design and animations. The script is merely the skeleton, with the help of the animators, the script writers we’re able to convey complex ideas in very simple graphics and imagery.

The product is art, it's eye candy for visual learning. My job is to make sure that what is happening on screen has an explanation that a learner can interpret.

One last thing that you would like to share with us about making Astro 101: Black Holes?

My biggest disappointment about this course is that unlike Mountains 101 and Dino 101 we don't have a field trip that we can go on, we can’t visit a Black Hole. I'm really missing the travel to produce this MOOC but maybe there is an opportunity for us to go and visit a lab that creates, you know, wormholes or something.

Astrophysics 101: Visiting a Black Hole is one of our current MOOC productions. Stay tuned to learn more from subject matter experts and instructors from our online learning productions or take a look at our recent work.


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Jesús Ramirez

Jesús Ramirez

Web Developer at Onlea