Prof. Brian Greene Launches Elegant Online Physics Course

Cindy del Rosario-Tapan
February 25, 2014

Mathematics and Physics Professor Brian Greene will launch two free online courses on March 6 as part of his new online teaching initiative, World Science University. The classes are designed to use the capabilities of digital media to create a new kind of learning experience that makes science more visual, interactive and compelling.

Both introductory courses will focus on Einstein’s special relativity, a theory on space and time that examines how reality behaves at very high speeds. Open to anyone interested in the field of science, the first three-week course focuses on concepts and is designed for people who may not have a lot of technical background. The second class, which is more math focused and is aimed at anyone with high-school math proficiency, is scheduled to run for 10 weeks. These courses are not for credit, but are being used by Greene and colleagues from other campuses as part of their teaching methods. (Those interested in the courses can register here.)

“I launched this project with the aim of using digital innovation to make it easier, more exciting and more gratifying for students to learn science,” says Greene. He recorded his lecture not in a classroom but in a lower Manhattan loft in order to provide a compelling experience for online viewers. “When students can visualize abstract ideas through carefully crafted animations, play with new concepts through interactive demonstrations, be led by the hand through exercises and problems, and have many confusing issues addressed through guided question sessions, they learn the material more deeply.”

Greene is hopeful that a user-generated model will develop over time, with students helping to guide the release of new courses. The project is an extension of the World Science Festival, an annual event in New York City, which regularly includes many of Greene's Columbia faculty colleagues in its inventive programs. Launched by Greene and his wife Tracy Day in 2008, the World Science Festival showcases science to the general public and encourages participants to engage with the material.

“I don’t want to use the Internet as a new delivery vehicle for old-style teaching,” he says. “Instead, I want to provide students digital materials that can radically enhance their understanding of science.”

Brian Greene joined the faculty at Columbia in 1996, and is co-founder and director of Columbia’s Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics. His books include "The Fabric of the Cosmos," "The Hidden Reality" and "The Elegant Universe," which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction. PBS featured Greene in two four-hour broadcast television "NOVA" series based on his books.