Course: Origins – Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life
School: University of Copenhagen via Coursera (free)
Instructor: A Cast of Thousands (in binary, that is)
The history of our planet and Solar System, during an interval of almost 5 billion years, is controlled by a series of key biological and geological processes. The course will investigate the prehistory and origins of our Solar System, the Earth and its tectonic processes, the origin of life and the evolution of the complex marine and terrestrial ecosystems that have uniquely defined our planet.
The course is taught by a broad range of specialists from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen. The extensive collections at the museum will be used throughout the course to illustrate what we know and why we know it.
[Addendum: This course has been converted to Coursera’s new platform; in the process, some content may have changed, and the experience may be significantly different than that described here]
If someone made a movie out of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, this would be it. You like paleontology? It’s in there. Astrophysics more your thing? It’s got it. Geology? Check. Biology? Botany? Yes, and yes. It’s a very broad survey course – each week featured a topic presented in overview, with one or two processes within each topic explored in more detail. It’s fantastic.
The Natural History Museum of Denmark must be quite a place, and the course made good use of it – and of a wide variety of affiliated professors with different areas of research expertise – throughout. We started off with a tour of the museum’s meteorite collection, including the World’s Largest Meteorite Slice. I never thought about meteorites before – where they came from, what they’re made of – but it turns out to be fascinating. The preparation made the more technical material that followed – nucleosynthesis of elements and formation of the solar system – a lot less scary for those of us who are easily intimidated.
The introductory lecture also presented the chronostratigraphic chart (I like colors, remember?), with a short tutorial on reading the timeline and what parts to watch most closely. Subsequent modules went from there, moving in roughly chronological order to the present.
Lectures included lots of visual content – museum specimens, on-site adventures, photos, diagrams, charts – and supplementary materials were recommended; other students recommended still more for those of us who wanted to look into specific areas more closely. A weekly multiple-choice quiz provided the “grade” for the course; some were harder than others. One odd thing I’ve never seen before in a MOOC: while we got a score for the test (“You got 8 out of 10 correct”) and could make three submissions, we weren’t shown which questions were wrong. This is a compromise between allowing a single submission, and between the typical but very strange procedure of allowing 3 submissions for quizzes with 4 multiple choice options (which is why I put “grades” in quotation marks). The more obsessive of us (like, um, me) used the post-credit submissions to figure out correct answers on quizzes we didn’t ace.
I made heavy use of the lecture transcripts, pasting in screen shots alongside appropriate text. In fact, a volunteer brigade of four or five other students produced a “textbook” from the transcripts and screen shots – an extraordinary project resulting in camera-ready copy. It became essential; without the pressure of note-taking, we could watch the videos and better absorb what was going on.
Besides the content (which I’ll get to presently) what made this course really sing was the student engagement in the forums. Early on, one student started a “knuckle-draggers” thread, where we admitted our ignorance and asked stupid questions (like my own incredibly dense: “If this happened 4500 million years ago and continued for 800 million years, where does that leave us?” Answer: 3700 million, or 3.7 billion, years ago, except sometimes billion means something else in Europe… Numbers. They get me every time). The “Insane Work Load” thread turned into a home base for a lot of us, where we commiserated, then got organized to share notes, links, and, when things slowed down, just chat.
Maybe that’s what makes any MOOC sing, at least for me. Now that I think about it, the courses I’ve enjoyed the most were the ones where I felt the most comfortable on the discussion forums, where difficulties were acknowledged and shared and questions were answered without condescension, where I could enjoy and return the enthusiasm of others. Because let’s face it, no course is perfect. Even here, there were lectures that were confusing, and some that were less interesting than others. But the course was an absolute blast, and while that has a lot to do with the material (and, of course, my own interest in it), it also has a lot to do with the company.
About that insane work load: The course was timed to coincide with an on-the-ground class at the Museum. Initially, two modules were released every week. I didn’t realize this (reading the instructions is for wimps) so I had this feeling of being on a treadmill: I hadn’t finished Module 2 when Module 3 appeared, and so on. This is where hardship created community, and we started sharing notes and creating textbooks to make it easier for those with less word processing experience to benefit from our expertise. I was pretty grumpy about the pace for a while, but I have to admit, it brought us together, and that had enormous benefits. After a few weeks, however, the schedule was changed, and only one module a week was released. I don’t know why, and I’m very curious: did something happen to the on-site course? Were too many students getting too far behind? Whatever the reason, the slower pace coincided with the end of several my other courses, so suddenly I had time to burn. It was nice to take all day on a single video, to look up unfamiliar terms (and many of them are unfamiliar) and to look at supplemental resources.
I got obsessed with some surprising things: brachiopods, for instance; some of them are served for dinner, and some you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole. And the slimy block of pond scum that… BREATHES! Seriously, the oxygen content goes up when sunlight allows photosynthesis, and goes down in the dark, and we watched how it’s measured, how that oxygen level decreases with depth since less sunlight penetrates the deeper layers. This is also where I ran into the similarity between formaldehyde and glucose, which as it turns out have the same empirical formula, a concept I still don’t quite grasp, but that’s why I’m taking a chemistry class this quarter.
I’ve never thought of myself as a plant person – where there are plants, there are bugs (and, in the case of bananas, bats, since bananas are bat-pollinated, oh goodie), and plants require care and attention but don’t purr or curl up on your feet at night (Lucy, I still miss you and all your predecessors) so what good are they – but the plant module was wonderful. Except for one thing: I’ll never eat a fig again. It isn’t so much that a fig isn’t fruit at all, but an inflorescence folded in on itself, with hundreds of tiny flowers on the inside. That’s ok, I’m used to food being called something it isn’t. But… do you know what fig wasps are doing in there? Yeah. Next time you bite into that elegant figs-wrapped-in-prosciutto appetizer, or just snarf down the Newtons in front of the tv, think about this.
Besides using the museum displays and laboratory settings, several professors took field trips to places I’d never heard of. We went fossil hunting at the beach, and examined rock layers of the cliffs of Stevns Klint, before heading back to the museum collection of geological markers illustrating the formation of the earth. I’m still not sure I understand the difference between oceanic crust and earth crust, but I know there is a difference, and I got some idea of how volcanic activity, plate tectonic activity, and rock weathering regulated CO2 in the atmosphere for a very long time, as well as the icehouse-greenhouse cycle of more recent periods. And now I know a little more about why the cliffs of Dover are white: calcium from shells.
One of the highlights of the course was an online mini-course on primate evolution folded into Module 10, The Human Animal, designed for use by Danish high school students. Virtual skull measurement of four species allowed comparison of chimps, people, and a couple of intermediate species, in order to speculate as to the reasons or effects of the differences (I never realized chimps have such huge fangs, for instance). Also included were three brief videos from the Museum which featured a detailed dissection of a chimp’s leg and head. This, um, caused a bit of a stir on the forums, since the presentation was rather theatric complete with dramatic music and artistic lighting and framing, including a taxidermist grinning at his knives. But that’s how animals are studied, and it beats the frog dissection from my high school biology class. I could’ve done without the music, though; since the audio was in Danish, I turned the sound off.
This was an extraordinary course, put together with care. Not that it was perfect (but what is): the initial pace was truly insane, the schedule change caused problems for some people (holiday trips without internet, etc.) and staff presence on the board faded after the first weeks. But I highly recommend it for anyone interested in science. I’ll pay it the highest compliment, in fact: it’s inspired me to take a whole crop of additional science courses, and when you come down to it, that’s the most any course can do: get me interested in finding out more.