New MOOC for a new year

This is it. This is, barring some disaster, the year I go to adult college. But of course one cannot just take the bus to State U and begin taking classes for credit; unemployed 21-year-olds with high ACT scores* and a smattering of online credit from San Jose State University have to navigate the bureaucracy of admission like everyone else. On top of that, the Pell Grant structure dictates that I start in the fall rather than the summer. It’s not like I plan to spend eight months sitting on my hands, however. That would not be The Way of The Student. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”

The free college courses that have been popping up across the internet like wildflowers may not be the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original options available, but they are the cheapest, and they have changed my life. In the past year, they taught me that my childhood obsession with biology and my adolescent obsession with chemistry were not outbursts of silliness to be left behind, and that I am not, as previously believed, bad at math. They taught me how to study long and hard for tests, and to see how that studying is worth it. Because of MOOCs I no longer hang my head and mumble about trade or culinary school when my elders interrogate me about my future. “I want to be a scientist,” I say, “I am thinking of chemistry or genetics. It’s hard work, and not everyone can be Linus Pauling, but I’m willing to bore through dozens of barriers to be part of something amazing.”

Modern science wouldn’t be modern science without computers, so my first MOOC of the new year is Introduction to Computer Science, offered by Harvard University via edX. I’ve tried to take these coding classes before, and I’ve found that they tend to move too quickly for someone unaccustomed to the key concepts of computation and programming languages. This is where CS50x has already proved helpful in its first two batches of lectures and assignments – the charismatic professor starts his students off in Scratch, a playful pseudolanguage that introduces the ideas of strings, variables, functions, and loops using colorful puzzle pieces. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced computer-savvy people saying, “It’s okay, n00b, come into our world of mystery and power.” My hope is to be proficient in, or at least familiar with, the C language by the time I complete this friendly course. These peculiar, literal, half-mathematical languages with which we speak to our machines are major assets to a student of the sciences, whether or not he or she ever plans to work as a programmer.

I retook the test in October to make sure State U would understand that I, a mysterious self-educated gypsy-person, can read and stuff. Walking into a medium-security testing center with a bunch of teenagers felt strange; I couldn’t believe I’d ever been such a poor awkward creature, and had allowed myself to be intimidated by other such poor awkward creatures. Anyway, composite 32, math 28, English 36, science 27, reading 35. 

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The best MOOC ever just ended

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This week marks the end of a massive open online course called Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life. This course, an adaption of human genome unwraveler Eric Lander’s Bio 101 class at MIT, was offered (and may be offered again) by all-star online education platform edX. And as it happened, it consumed my life for three whole months.

I am going to miss it so much.

The principle joy of taking this course was Dr. Lander’s feisty, creative teaching style. I’m sure that I missed out on some things experiencing it on video only, but the elitists who snub MOOCs on this basis forget that most of us are never going to know what it’s like to attend an MIT lecture in person – the effect of a charismatic hologram professor on the student is diluted, but still valuable. I admired Dr. Lander’s manner of structuring the material, which involved tying the textbook material to the historical progress of genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. The few MIT chemistry lectures I watched before accepting that I needed to take calculus first followed a similar multidisciplinary-historical approach, suggesting that this may be part of the MIT model of education in general. If so, MIT is awesome.

English: Professor Eric Lander teaching the fi...

Platonic crush ahoy!

I loved how current some of the material was. At one point, Dr. Lander was discussing RNA-induced silencing complexes, and he said “This isn’t in your textbook, but it’s in your body.” That’s how fast the discipline of biology is moving, and that’s the value of having MOOCs in STEM fields. A rockstar prof involved with cutting-edge research is going to have access to the most recent advances and know how to teach about them. S/he will also have amazing stories to tell – this year, Dr. Lander wrote a brief to the Supreme Court regarding the pitfalls of gene patents, and it was cited at the hearing!

Please grant me one more paragraph of shameless gushing: some of the software available with the course was incredibly cool. It allowed students to solve problems involving actual protein structures and genome sequences. Now, there were a few bugs that drove us all crazy in the beginning, but all in all it was a good system – there is nothing like solving a biology problem with a real genome. There is nothing like knowing that one’s homework is real.

I came within five points of earning a full certificate in this course as opposed to an auditor’s certificate, but I didn’t make it. This is only, and I mean only, because I went through a disorganized period in May where I missed the second half of the midterm exam. I guess I learned some lessons about writing things down on my calendar. Depressing, certainly, but I cannot consider it an outright failure, as it is not going to be carved in stone on any transcript. The point of most MOOCs, as they currently exist, is what knowledge one can take away from them; 7.00x was stellar in this regard. I’m happy to take the auditor’s certificate as a souvenir/physical token.

Earlier this year I took a MOOC called Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, courtesy of Dr. Mohammad Noor of Duke University in partnership with Coursera. I did earn a full certificate in that one, as well as two hours of college credit and a distinction badge. When I was banging out Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium problems as part of Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, I remembered thinking, “Wow, I could do this every day for the rest of my life!” Normally statements like this are just hyperbole (“Mmmm, Miss Carrie, I could eat this cornbread every day for the rest of my life!”), but when they concern things like biology, computer programming, sewing, writing, or fixing cars, that’s an inner voice to which one should pay heed. It reminds me of being that little girl who would only listen to fairy tales if her mother replaced all the characters with anthropomorphic viruses and bacteria. Seems I’m still that little girl.

To close with a quote from Dr. Lander’s lecture on gene patents:

There are choices we have to make as a society, and different societies make different choices. It’s done in different ways in different places, and they may value things in different ways. But it’s important that as much as we may focus on alpha helices and proteins and telomerase and things like that, we recognize that what we’re doing does spill out and affect the rest of society, and as scientists, or people just learning about science, it’s important to think about bringing that knowledge to these social questions…That’s what we want people to be able to do, to be able to take knowledge from science and then go apply it to different social situations, combining with real human values. In the end, the values make a big difference to where you’re going to come out. But if you’re not informed by good science, values alone aren’t going to be enough to get you to a good answer.

Indeed, indeed.