Jupyter/IPython Notebooks: A Killer App in STEM Education… And An Engaging Course Proves It


Are Jupyter –previously IPython– notebooks a killer app in STEM education?

This what Prof. Lorena Barba, Chair of the Open edX Universities Symposium, stated during the JupyterDay conference that took place in New York last October 24.

“Modern instructors use multi-media content: printed notes, graphic-rich websites or blogs, videos of many kinds, etc. Jupyter notebooks combine all of this with computable parts written in Python (and/or other languages). This brings a huge opportunity to interact with the material and use computing to construct knowledge,” she said during an interview conducted by Professor Robert Talbert at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Lorena Barba, a leading proponent of Project Jupyter in university STEM education, hosted her “Practical Numerical Method with Python” course on GitHub and used Open edX to organize an open online course around the notebooks. The course assessments are all auto-graded in Open edX. This course famously only contains two videos, with the rest of the course structured around student engagement with a series of Jupyter notebooks.

“The course design follows a structure that I have used before and works really well for complex topics: chunk up the course into somewhat self-contained modules, each composed of small, achievable steps leading to one satisfying result, plus a micro project as assessment. Being about numerical computing, I knew I would use Python as the language and IPython (now Jupyter) notebooks for the content. Each notebook to a lesson, four or five lessons to a module, and five course modules, and we have a “course.”

“Knowing that online learners have many other things to do and few reasons to “complete” a course, I decided we would award an open digital badge for each module, instead of a course certificate. The final ingredient was persuading a couple of other instructors teaching similar courses at their institution to collaborate in the MOOC and invite their students to join with mine and the followers from around the world. I was looking to form a community around the course.”

“My experience with Jupyter notebooks is that students engage with the material in an almost tactile way. Manipulating a piece of code, experimenting with parameters in a problem, then reflecting and discussing the output makes for an active learning experience that works. The best results occur when students start creating their own notebooks, either documenting a mini-project or for note-taking and experimenting with code. I encourage them to do it, and it takes a lot of cajoling, but when they start doing this, I know I’ve reeled them in and they will succeed in the course.”

“Now we need the few innovative universities that decide to use this technology universally (for a broad cohort of students) and prove the impact it can have.”


Robert Talbert’s Interview with Lorena Barba