2.03x Dynamics aims to improve learning on and off campus

Beginning this fall, students everywhere will have an opportunity to better understand one of the classic experiences of an MIT undergraduate, when edX releases 2.03x Dynamics on Oct. 28.

Mechanical Engineering is the second largest engineering department at MIT, and this version of the popular Dynamics course covers many key concepts in the first year curriculum for mechanical engineering (or Course 2) majors. “This course is a great way to discover what mechanical engineering is all about, and develop useful skills that serve any technical field of study,” says Professor David Gossard, the course’s lead instructor and lecturer.

Dynamics is fundamental to the mechanical engineering discipline, according to Gossard, because our world is filled with objects in motion, whether man-made or natural. Learning to analyze and predict dynamic movement in engineering systems is what enables one to understand the inner workings of machines that exist — and to invent new ones that don’t. In addition to providing clear and practical examples, the course offers a thorough grounding in problem solving skills by teaching students how to approach complex problems in dynamics, and break them down into their components.

Professor Kim Vandiver, who teaches the course’s recitation sessions along with Professor Tom Peacock, offers an illustrative example. “When you’re describing complex motions, you have to be able to assign coordinates and velocities and positions and accelerations to properly describe the motions,” Vandiver says. “You need to figure out which of Newton’s laws apply, and then use the appropriate mathematics to arrive at the solution. By the end of this course, you can actually begin to solve some reasonably sophisticated problems.”

The course is divided into two main parts. The first portion covers kinematics, or the geometry of motion. Students learn to analyze the velocity and acceleration of points and rigid bodies. In the second part of the course, students study kinetics, and learn to derive equations of motion and solve them using modern computational methods. Students also learn about imbalance in rotating systems.

Despite its abstract subject matter, the 2.03x professors focus on giving students a practical understanding of the material. “We have given a lot of thought not just to what we teach, but also how we teach it,” Gossard says. “We go to some length to make the subject matter real, to make it connect with students’ sense of the real world around them. That means not only bringing a certain level of rigor, but also making the material accessible and enjoyable to learn. Ever since I have been involved in this course, I’ve made a personal commitment to making the subject matter more engineering-oriented and less abstract, injecting an element of realism into the lectures.”

Interestingly, the course does not simply represent an excellent opportunity to give the outside world a taste of a genuine MIT education. “One of the reasons I accepted this challenge is because I saw the opportunity to improve the experience for residential MIT students,” Gossard explains.

For example, the material offered through 2.03x is available to MIT students taking the same course. Lectures are captured, segmented and edited (Gossard himself participates in the video editing with the MITx team), then rapidly posted to the edX platform, so current MIT students can review lectures to prepare for exams or problem sets. “There’s also an excellent opportunity to incorporate auto-grading of problem sets into the course through the edX platform,” Gossard says. “Students get instant feedback on problem sets (though exams are still manually graded). Historically, MIT students submitted scanned their solutions to a human grader. By the time they got feedback, the problem sets were often half-forgotten.”

2.03x Dynamics offers a fantastic grounding in the forces that surround us every day. “What I love about teaching this course is that once you know a bit about dynamics, you get a whole new perspective on all sort of things,” says Gossard, “You have a better understanding of the physics that governs the ways objects move in the physical world. It makes it a easier to negotiate the world we live in.”

Prerequisites for the course are a solid level of understanding of the core concepts in physics and Newton’s laws, and an exposure to differential equations. 2.03x Dynamics begins on Oct. 28 and registration is open now.