Over the last four years, instructor KC Walsh has transformed introductory physics classes at Oregon State, reducing the DFW (drop-fail-withdraw) rate from 36 percent to just 13 percent as of 2016. This recent article in OSU’s Terra Magazine showcases Walsh’s innovations, his students’ success, and his ongoing plans to make ‘Project Boxsand’ even better.
If KC Walsh invites you to his office to show off his latest instructional technology, prepare to be dazzled. His massive, room-dividing glass whiteboard complete with a recording studio might look more like the latest in home entertainment systems, but he is turning this exceptional display into an effective teaching tool for a topic that has been mired in tradition.
Walsh is a senior instructor of intro physics at Oregon State University. The Lightboard uses an optical phenomenon called “frustrated total internal reflection of light” inside the glass to make words and equations luminesce brightly and colorfully where a marker draws on the surface.
If that sounds confusing, think of light trapped, bouncing around inside the glass and released wherever the marker touches. This is part of a recording setup, funded by a Learning Innovation Grant from Oregon State, for making new, engaging and high-quality recorded lectures. In the videos that Walsh creates, writing appears to float unobstructed in front of the instructor as he works, making it easy to film and to add in digital figures. The Lightboard was unintentionally a perfect hybrid of Walsh’s duel passions — physics and teaching.
The content of intro physics classes and textbooks has remained largely unchanged for well over a hundred years. Walsh is breaking the mold of conventional classroom dynamics by using online resources paired with data-driven research as a guide to make physics classes less painful for students.
His grand project, dubbed Project BoxSand, brings an innovative and open-source teaching structure designed to promote active learning. Also funded by a Learning Innovation Grant, BoxSand’s backbone is the “flipped” classroom, flipped in the sense that the course relies on content delivery through pre-lecture material on the class website, freeing up class time for more engaging practice.
The site, BoxSand.org, now boasts thousands of videos and broad-ranging physics learning resources all compiled in one place. If you log in, you would find a long sidebar of carefully selected and organized introductory physics overviews, concept maps, videos, problems and more. Students receive a “Daily Learning Guide,” which directs them to the appropriate pre-lecture content before each day of class. In class, students work through now-familiar problems on the board and hands-on activities in small groups.
Though physics is the topic in question, the project sights are high. Walsh is carving a path for modular and accessible educational tools and methods for any field of study. With a grant from Open Oregon State through OSU’s Ecampus, he is leveraging online resources to create an open-source textbook.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Walsh says, “because we’re providing free resources for the students. I don’t think it will ever be 100 percent done. The idea of this is, it’s a sort of organic, moving, shared resource for people to use.”