Lights, Action, Physics!

KC Walsh brings a playful touch to science

February 27, 2018

By Leto Sapunar

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.

A bowling ball on a wire turns into a physics teaching tool in KC Walsh ‘s classes.

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,, 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.”

Evidence Based for Students

KC’s 2016 study of BoxSand site usage by Physics 201 students provides data for the project’s Evidence-based Instructional Practices, or EBIP for short. EBIP sounds like common sense, but although the concept has been around for decades, it hasn’t been widely implemented. By tracking what resources students use and how they use them and by comparing that information to conventional classrooms, Walsh and other EBIP instructors systematically modify their classes to improve student learning.

When he isn’t teaching, KC Walsh can be found on a hiking trail or one of Oregon’s rock climbing destinations. Mount Jefferson is a favorite.

After completing his Ph.D. at Oregon State, KC discovered that he preferred teaching to theoretical physics research. He wanted to make a direct impact on his students. In his first few years teaching hundreds of students, he just tried to keep his head above water, but he began a long and ever-evolving quest to improve his teaching methods, which culminated in BoxSand.

His methods have come a long way. Before the recent addition of the studio, he recorded pre-lecture videos with a tablet computer. His first precursor was a glorified Wiki page. Now he’s driven by the same motivations that led him to teaching in the first place, a desire to further students’ understanding of the world and make education ever more accessible.

Finding Content

Ikaika McFadden described his work early in the project. “We were scouring the internet for any kind of open source physics resource we could find,” said the recent Oregon State physics graduate with a leading role in curating site content. “There’s a lot of information out there for students, but it’s nice to have physics eyes on it to filter it for you, to tell you, ‘this group of stuff is helpful, you should look at this.’” Ikaika, along with others, have taken on the painstaking task of finding and organizing large amounts of site-destined physics content over the past three years.

The mindset of the flipped classroom emphasizes learning by experience rather than exposure. Students can read and view course material before class via the site, saving class time for the important part — active, engaged learning. “If you’d never shot a free throw,” Walsh said, describing this philosophy, “you’d never think watching somebody shoot free throws for fifty minutes would help you get better.”

According to him, active-learning practices have proven to be both more effective than a conventional lecture and to be disproportionately more helpful for typically underrepresented students.

Walsh first flipped his classroom four years ago, starting a website for 300 lecture videos and some external links in addition to the required textbook. In fall 2017, BoxSand — featuring far more content, continually improved with the help of a team of undergraduate and graduate students — completely replaced the required textbook. This change, Walsh says, “saved OSU students about $70,000 this year and every year going forward.”

The big question is, after a full course redesign, which leans heavily on the idea that students use the course content, will they keep up on the pre-lecture material? The whole system quickly falls apart if they don’t.

According to the latest results, students have been using the site and doing considerably better.

Proof in the Data

Before Walsh implemented the reformed curriculum, the DFW (drop-fail-withdraw) rate for Physics 201 was 36 percent. By Fall of 2016, that number dropped to just 13 percent with the average grade 6 to 8 percent higher. There are many possible reasons for grade fluctuation, but the fact that an additional 23 percent of students who were on the low end of the grading curve are now passing without bringing down the course average is remarkable.

Student feedback through end-of-term eSET (electronic Student Evaluation of Teaching) surveys has also been key in assessing students’ experience with the course. The surveys ask specific questions regarding course satisfaction and allow students to leave comments. Based on the change in student responses, physics students are, on the whole, much happier having the flipped classroom and BoxSand site compared to the previous, more conventional intro classes.

Student Experiences

Madison Gorton, a biology and nutrition double major taking Physics 202 winter term, said the site made it “way easier to find things and navigate” than a traditional textbook. She also appreciated that the pre-lecture course content consistently related directly to what they were studying in class the next day.

When asked if the extra time spent on pre-lecture videos was a hassle, Sam Ellis said it balanced out, explaining that he found seeing the material beforehand and working out problems in class helpful. Becky Wick, a biology major in the class added, “It’s not worse than the textbook readings for other classes, especially for a five-credit course. Physics is hard, but with him teaching it, it’s better.”

Overall Walsh’s students think the class challenging but find the innovative course structure helpful and the instructor’s passion for teaching undeniable.

Down the Road

Project BoxSand, however, is far from finished. One of the next project goals is replacing the publisher’s online homework system with a modified version of OpenStax Tutor from Rice University — an open source alternative which will be both free to students and feature BoxSand integration. The project is still in heavy development with help from three Oregon State computer science majors. It is scheduled to replace the current for-profit system in fall 2018, saving students an additional $70,000 a year. Once complete, all these learning resources will be freely available to 20X series students.

Further project goals involve the inclusion of an online collaborative studying and digital whiteboard system called Async Sync. Walsh hopes this will become a crucial tool for Ecampus students as well as an additional resource for those on campus. He also looks forward to a formal comparative study of on- and off-campus versions of the intro physics classes.

Though he and his team have done some preliminary number crunching, there’s still much work to do with last year’s roughly 3.5 million datapoints (in the form of website clicks) from the roughly two-thirds of the class who agreed to be part of Walsh’s ongoing study. The analysis will be done with a computational method for large datasets known as Correlation Data Mining. In this case, Walsh wants to determine what online behavior patterns are associated with higher knowledge gain.

Walsh was recently awarded funding from the Ecampus Research Fellows Program, which will allow for a three-month break in his teaching, giving him the chance to work full time on processing, learning from and publishing the data. He also has a fellowship in the Oregon State Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning ESTEME@OSU program, an Oregon State initiative that supports lower division teachers pursuing EBIP research and implementation.

Walsh’s vision for educational reform is bold and uncompromising. His long-term goal is building a platform with which one can teach “anything about anything,” as he puts it. He believes that modular, free to access course material could be shared and improved upon in a digital course building system. A longtime believer in open source content, he doesn’t think that the cost of course materials should be a limiting factor for those who want to learn.

In the future, he also hopes to build predictive functionality into the site to help identify struggling students, as he said, “before it’s too late, so that we can intervene and reach out and offer them service and support.”


Note: Leto Sapunar is a senior in physics at Oregon State University.


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