A massive online thermodynamic experiment: Putting it all together

The genesis of the idea was during the year when I was a post-doc at MIT. As luck would have it, it turned out that my friend, Frank Wang, had also started his PhD there at MIT. He was fresh off his extremely successful MOOC with Dan Boneh on cryptography. I talked about doing online learning during my faculty interviews, but the ideas were still vague and needed some crystallizing.

Through a few months, I was finally able to nail down, through my discussions with Frank Wang and the course design team at Acatar, what I wanted to do and at least have a good answer for why I wanted to do it.

What should the online course cover?

Now, while engineering is still quite behind in the whole online learning experiment, there were quite a few courses for intro level classes. Further, this was not where I could make a strong contribution. The course should cover timely and relevant content. Energy is one of the crucial issues facing humanity today. I wanted the class that tackles some key problems in energy.

I took a step back and looked at my own research journey. At the end of an undergraduate education in Mechanical Engineering, I was quite familar with principles on designing macroscale devices. However, as I started pursuing graduate studies, it seemed like the great inventions, innovations were actually happening at the microscale. Nanotechnology was becoming an important aspect of modern science. Designing new materials at the atomic scale became a key part of engineering design. I was lucky to take 4 different flavors of Statistical Thermodynamics during my graduate studies: two from an engineering perspective: Mechanical and Chemical and two from a physical sciences perspective: Physics and Chemistry.

This would be the unique thing I wanted my online course to be about: how to bring a molecular perspective, a microscale thinking for macroscale phenomena. Next generation devices will be discovered through innovations at the microscale; be it a super-battery, an efficient solar cell, a better catalyst. The content I aim to cover is to provide this microscopic thinking that will provide learners with the principles for engineering next generation devices.

What is the guiding principle for the course content?

An essential aspect to the scientific method is to develop a guiding principle. Making go and no-go decisions needed a working hypothesis. The way I wanted to teach was to cover the bare minimum, (the theoretical minimum) that would enable learners to wander off and apply the concepts taught to a wide variety of applications. The inspiration here is from the wonderful lectures I was lucky to listen to from Leonard Susskind during my graduate studies. I wanted to try and emulate this principle where I would try to cover only that which is absolutely necessary to understand the course material.

Why this particular class and not anything else?

This was the hardest question of all to answer. I wanted to make sure I was teaching something that was important, but was not broadly available. Through my experience looking at course curriculum at various schools all over the world, the molecular view to thermodynamics was not a part of the standard engineering coursework. Very few schools offered the class I wanted to teach.

The feedback I got from industry colleagues finally tipped me in favor of doing this. They felt that this was a key aspect of modern engineering that is not being covered sufficiently at a graduate level.

Once, these thoughts were crystallized, I tried these principles out in my graduate level thermodynamics class I taught in the Fall of 2014. The course was challenging; the theoretical concepts taught were applied in understanding several important engineering and biological applications. The feedback, at the end, was great. I got 5/5 on teacher ratings and students seemed quite happy that they had learnt a new way of thinking about the phenomenon and devices around them. Read my reflections about teaching the class here.

The online version of the course, that we have decided to call, Statistical Thermodynamics: Molecules to Machines, aims to bridge the gap left from traditional engineering courses, which teach about designing devices at the macro scale and modern inventions in engineering which center around innovations at the molecular scale for new materials and processes.

A sneak peek:

One topic to be covered is to demystify the phase separation and intercalation involved in LiFePO4 (LFP), an extremely important battery material. LFP was an invention that revolutionized the battery industry and is a great innovation success story. The key innovation that enabled this material to become a commercial success was through an innovation at the nano-scale by MIT Professor Yet-Ming Chiang and his colleagues. He later went on to co-found A123 systems that commercialized this nano LFP technology. We will discuss the key concepts involved in this success story.

Enroll in our course at:
https://www.coursera.org/course/stathermo

Associate Professor @CarnegieMellon University, Advanced Batteries, Electrochemical Devices

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