Granite Geek: The art of college and online learning

  • An illustration by Katherine Roy from “The Engineering of Structures Around Us,” a free online course from Dartmouth College taught by professor Vicki May. Courtesy

  • A screenshot of Vicki May from the online course “The Engineering of Structures Around Us.” Courtesy

Published: 5/10/2016 12:28:51 AM

Drawing animals is about as old as culture gets, if you count those beasts doodled on prehistoric cave walls. And massive online college courses are about as new as it gets, with no one really sure exactly where they are going.

All the more reason to mash them together – at least, that seems to have been the thinking by Dartmouth professor Vicki May a couple of years ago when she created one of the school’s first free online courses, “The Engineering of Structures Around Us.”

“I like to draw, and I thought using illustrations would make engineering more friendly – less scary – and put it in context,” May said when asked how an anthropomorphized owl came to be part of the course. The creature, named with geeky specificity Owl, even has an instructor’s biography on the course site, alongside those of May, designers and undergraduates.

May, an associate professor of engineering at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, knew her sketching skills weren’t up to her teaching skills, so she hired a graduate of a nearby school, the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., which offers a master of fine arts in cartooning. She and Katherine Roy brainstormed the character and its adventures as it accumulates solutions to problems that illustrate such principles as tension, shear and compression.

“Katherine and I just clicked. We started with a full exhausting day; I had course outlines, and we knew we wanted a character. We experimented with several . . . I don’t remember how we came up with the owl but when we did it, we both knew it was right,” she said.

(If you’re not familiar with the Center for Cartoon Studies, which turns 10 this year, check the upcoming Sunday Monitor for a profile of this intriguing institution. I promise it will not include any of my drawings.)

“I think we should all have illustrators,” May said of her experience with Roy. “More faculty are using things like that – YouTube, finding animations, simulations, short little illustrations for classes. Those are powerful.”

There was another reason to hire an illustrator, she says: that way Dartmouth owns the pictures.

“I also wanted to not deal with copyright. I could have taken drawings from other textbooks that are legal to use in class, but which couldn’t be published (online) without copyright, and that would be a nightmare,” May said.

“Structures” is aimed as much at curious high schoolers as at college students and is not a replacement for a 101-level engineering course, she said. It includes plenty of at-home projects for students to get hands-on application of concepts.

“The Engineering of Structures Around Us” is what is known by the inelegant acronym MOOC, because it’s a massive (enrollment is unlimited), online, open (no charge unless you want official certification) course.

MOOCs were a hot new thing three or four years ago when they looked as if they might upend the traditional college business model. “Structures” is part of EdX, a compilation of MOOCs from a variety of high-profile universities around the world that was created by MIT and Harvard.

The advantage of the approach is obvious: it’s a great way to spread education.

May says a whopping 15,000 students have taken the class. She plans to use a rerun for research into educational methods, performing so-called A/B tests in which single variables of the approach are tweaked for different groups so the results can be compared.

MOOC enthusiasm has cooled recently as the limitations of an open-ended online course became clear – most importantly, how much the lack of hands-on teaching reduces effectiveness. As an unfortunate example, consider me. I have taken several MOOCs but never finished any of them, mostly because nobody yelled at me if I didn’t keep up.

May doesn’t regard that as a deal-killer, however, because she has an interesting perspective on the field. “I see a MOOC as a textbook rather than a class; a textbook with videos,” she said.

That’s a very good approach, I think. Using it as a guide, I skimmed through “Structures” as I might skim a textbook for a class I hadn’t enrolled in, stopping when interested and jumping when not. And it works: I finally understand what structural engineers mean by tension, which I had always confused with compression.

Thanks, Owl.

(To check out the course, go online at

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)

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