PNAS: Carl Knutson, Online Education Developer

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Carl Knutson, who works for a company making online learning systems. The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

am the physics content project manager for an online homework and
learning environment provider, Sapling Learning, located in Austin,
TX. We offer online homework and tutorials for undergraduate science
courses. I am in charge of our physics offering for introductory
physics courses. Right now we are just finishing up the development of
the initial content where I was in charge of a group of PhD physicists
writing the questions, solutions, and feedback. In the future I will
be focused more on working with professors and other instructors who
are using us in their classes to make sure that our system and content
meets their teaching needs.

2) What is your science background?

BS in physics from Haverford College and PhD in physics from the
University of Texas at Austin.

3) What led you to this job?

I really enjoyed teaching as a grad student but didn't really envision
myself becoming a tenured professor. After graduating, I was doing
some contract work for Sapling Learning while looking for a full time
position in the semiconductor industry. I found that I really enjoyed
doing the educational work at Sapling so when they asked me to head
their physics product I came on full time.

4) What's your work environment like?

I work in an office, but it's not your usual solitary office or
cubicle farm. We're still a relatively small company so we have all of
our desks in a large room and the work environment is very relaxed.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Right now we are still developing the content so a lot of what I am
doing is reviewing questions to make sure they are well explained and
physically and mathematically correct. This involves making sure the
feedback is helpful and that the solutions are well organized. I help
out our sales team by giving online demonstrations of our system to
instructors to show them how we can be used in their courses. I also
work with instructors who are using us (for a few pilot courses right
now, but there will be more starting in the fall) to make sure that
they have the questions they need for their courses and help them with
any technical questions they have on using our site. A typical day can
be a mix of any of these tasks.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I primarily use my science background to ensure that the questions
that are being written by our authors are reasonable, either from a
realistic standpoint or at least a good teaching case. Being able to
predict what mistakes a student might make based on misconceptions
requires a thorough understanding of the concepts and how they are
applied. It also helps when I am talking to professors who either are
using our system or considering it when they realize that I know what
I'm talking about.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I didn't really anticipate this being the direction I was headed, but
from where I am now there are a few different things someone could do.
Since my job is still in education even though I'm not teaching
directly, a lot of these would apply to someone that might have
teaching in their future as well. A lot of colleges and universities
have programs that are working to teach science students not only the
scientific concepts and how to work problems, but giving them the
skills necessary to teach others as well. If a student can teach
others that student often develops a better understanding of the
concepts. If you are a grad student, odds are you will do some
teaching during your graduate career. Find out if your school has an
education research group or at least a seminar with education topics.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

Being able to take a somewhat scientific approach to a project or a
problem is probably the best overall skill that I learned from
science. After learning about how the physical world functions you can
get a better idea of estimating what is reasonable or unreasonable to
expect from a project. Then as you go forward on the project tracking
your progress becomes an important part of achieving or at least
refining your goal. It's also important to realize that sometimes your
initial goal or endpoint isn't really and ending but just a stepping
stone on to future stepping stones in a continually developing

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Learn to be flexible with your career. Opportunities come and go and
might not be exactly what you had in mind. If you are an undergrad
going to grad school, the prof you were hoping to work with might not
have enough room for you. Or you'll have to work as a TA because
funding for research assistants is tight. Or the economy might tank
right as you graduate so the job market will be terrible. However,
most likely you will have skills that are useful for a variety of
positions. You just have to keep looking until you find one that you
enjoy doing.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

$40k - $55k. Living in Austin, TX, this is still pretty comfortable as
the cost of living is lower than some larger cities.


More like this