Free MIT Videos Connect Tough STEM Topics to Real World

MIT has gone into the movie-making business to help engineering students understand how the concepts they're learning about in class apply to the real world. The university's Teaching & Learning Laboratory has produced 47 "STEM Concept Videos," all of which have Creative Commons licenses and are freely available on the school's Web site as well as through its OpenCourseWare site.

The videos cover themes in the courses that are part of first- and second-year engineering curricula, such as problem solving, communications, probability and statistics, equilibrium and nine other broad categories.

For example, a video on latent heat ties the concept of conservation of energy to phase change materials used in buildings, such as a Bank of America building in New York City that uses melting ice for cooling. Another video examines the question of why divergence is useful to researchers designing helmets to protect soldiers from the shockwaves of explosions.

Each video is less than 15 minutes long and may use animations, visualizations, demonstrations and other kinds of examples to help viewers understand the concepts. A video on vector fields, for instance, shows footage of a smoke probe visualization of airflow over a model of an F16 aircraft that was filmed in MIT's wind tunnel. The Lab has also created instructor guides with summaries, learning objectives and suggestions of activities to do before, during and after the videos.

The Lab works with faculty to develop their instructional practices. However, the video series was initiated by the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which was established in collaboration with MIT.

According to a paper on the project, the Lab approached the initiative by using a backward design process. It worked with instructors from foundational courses in engineering to identify intended learning outcomes and from those distilled "pivotal concepts" and critical skills that supported the outcomes. The ones that were turned into videos met two criteria: They were multidisciplinary; and they were prerequisites for "multiple" concepts that would be taught in upper-level classes.

A "primary author" was assigned to each video, and that person reviewed existing offerings to make sure the one at hand wouldn't duplicate what was already available in open educational resources. That author, along with a design team and other instructors along with practicing engineers, brainstormed ideas "for visual examples that could help illuminate the concept."

The primary author outlined the video's contents, and from there the video script was written and ideas for supporting visuals created. The process went through multiple reviews, up to and including narration recording and development of visuals.

"Developing these scripts required streamlining complex ideas without losing technical precision," noted Professor John Lienhard, who worked on two of the movies. "The resulting videos are a concise overview of challenging material."

According to the paper, presented in 2013, the Lab hopes to find a funding source to do research on the impact of the videos on student learning.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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