J. Nathan Kutz’s courses speak to every scientist — but only the extremely disciplined need apply

Frida GarzaFrida Garza | 3 minute read | October 21, 2014
J. Nathan Kutz’s courses speak to every scientist — but only the extremely disciplined need apply

While some professors may be content to teach to one major or concentration, J. Nathan Kutz has found that his courses on scientific computational methods appeal to almost every kind of scientist. His two MOOCs are popular with engineering, physical sciences and biology students. However, he suggests that only “quantitatively-minded” students apply — and that anything less than 100% commitment to the course leads to dropping out. Yikes. Following through seems worth the reward, though — students have been known to approach Professor Kutz on the street to tell him how his course improved their careers.

Read on to find out more about Professor Kutz and his quant-heavy courses:

Tell us a little more about your courses, and the decision to teach them online.
I have two courses on Coursera: Scientific Computing and Computational Methods for Data Analysis. The University of Washington, however, has offered online courses since 2007, when the applied mathematics department started an online Masters program that has proven to be very successful. It’s quite useful for professionals who are looking to update or improve their skills in the mathematical sciences.

We are doing something similar with these MOOCs. My courses are geared toward the broader engineering, physical and biological sciences communities. The idea is to provide cutting-edge mathematical methods, numerical tools and computational algorithms for quantitatively-minded scientists. There is a broad appeal of these kinds of courses across different science communities, and we noticed that on campus when these courses were taught in the past.

Who are the target audience for this course? What should one expect from it?
The target audience of the MOOCs is similar to the target audience at the University of Washington: quantitatively-minded upper-division undergraduates and graduate students in the engineering, biological and physical sciences. Ultimately, the aim is to deliver insight and programming functionality into the mathematical methods driving modern-day scientific computing. One should expect to come out of these courses understanding, and being able to implement, some of the foundational methods in scientific computing and data analysis.

Do you teach the same course to students on campus? If so, in what ways does the MOOC differ from on-campus version?
Both courses offered on Coursera are taught on our campus. The on-campus courses allow for a bit richer experience since more rigorous homework and projects can be assigned and ultimately evaluated by a TA. There is also a limited number of on-campus students.

What advice do you have for people taking your MOOC?
You have to be extremely disciplined! My biggest observation is that anything slightly less than 100% commitment ultimately leads to a person effectively “dropping out” of the course. After all, there is no grade or professor to hold a student accountable. So if you want to get to the end, you have to be highly determined to really finish the course.

What have you enjoyed most about teaching this MOOC? Were there any surprises?
One of the more enjoyable parts of the experience is being approached in some random city I am visiting by a student who took my MOOC course. It happened both in Boston and LA. It is nice to have these follow up conversations with students that spent lots of virtual time with me, but that I hadn’t gotten to know. These encounters help you think of the MOOC as actually having an impact, especially as you get to hear firsthand from these people how they are using the skills they learned.

How do you see MOOCs and their role in education evolve from here? Will universities offer credit for MOOCs or MOOC-based degrees?
This is, of course, the million dollar question. I don’t think that MOOCs can ultimately remain free. It simply costs money to produce high-quality material, and universities certainly can subsidize free education in the long term. It would seem that a natural step forward would be for the platform to charge some modest fee, but in exchange, universities would grant credit for courses. Only time will tell, but I think these are significant and serious considerations. There is no longer any question of can we offer massively online education, but rather how do we find a financial strategy that actually makes sense.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that not many people know!
I spent my childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will be exciting to see Brazil win their 6th World Cup title this summer. [Ed. note: We were excited too.]

Frida Garza

About Frida Garza

Frida Garza is the marketing and editorial intern at SlideRule. Previously, she covered tech and entrepreneurship for Technical.ly Philly and worked as a Copy Writing intern at Viacom's in-house ad agency. She likes reading, writing, cooking and learning new things. Frida received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English. You can follow her on Twitter @fffffrida