Skip to main content

Gut Check: Exploring Your Microbiome


Members of the BioFrontiers Institute approached the Academic Technology Design Team (ATDT) within the Office of Information Technology (OIT) to develop a massive open online course (MOOC) that would increase general interest in and understanding of the human microbiome (i.e., the collection of microbes in and on your body) and further public involvement in scientific endeavors.

This collaboration offered the opportunity for the ATDT to:

  • address STEM teaching and learning at scale,
  • capitalize on the reach of MOOCs to promote the cutting-edge research being conducted at CU Boulder,
  • offer a course that promotes diversity and inclusiveness in a global context, and
  • facilitate the conversion of the course to Coursera’s new on demand format and launch of an additional offering.


In the Fall of 2014, we, along with members of the BioFrontiers Institute who would serve as the instructors, launched Gut Check: Exploring Your Microbiome on the Coursera platform. The ATDT provided consultative support with regard to course design, content development, marketing and promotions, the Coursera platform, and overall project management.

The 6-week course included weekly video lectures by the instructors and 28 international guest lecturers. Interviews with top microbiome researchers and authors included Dr. Martin Blaser, professor and author of Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues; Jeff Leach, founder of the Human Food Project; and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Assessments included weekly quizzes, reflective in-video questions, and a two-part, peer-reviewed personal microbiome project. Online readings and discussion forums augmented participants' learning.

The design and development process allowed the ATDT to learn about large-scale course delivery including content development, student engagement, peer learning, assessments, and how these components can be transferred and applied to various contexts including residential, online, and hybrid courses. Both the MOOC and its promotion via social media channels helped increase awareness of CU Boulder and its reputation for research and innovative learning opportunities.


  • Improved educational access and inclusiveness for learners worldwide: 19,115 participants from 151 different countries enrolled in the course
  • Heightened visibility and potential involvement in the American Gut Project and other scientific endeavors
  • Increased international exposure of CU Boulder and the BioFrontiers Institute (e.g., highly successful Reddit iAmA)
  • Video lectures were viewed 361,712 times; 32,802 assignments submitted; and 7,683 forum posts made
  • Participants who rated their understanding of the subject matter from 'Good' to 'Excellent' increased from 49% to 97% as a result of the course
  • 98% had a better understanding of how scientific disciplines approach the study of health and disease

President Benson on MOOCs

"With this new [Coursera] agreement, CU is positioned at the leading edge of exploring how this quickly developing platform can help us deliver better education opportunities to more students."
- CU President Bruce Benson
The Denver Post, May 2013

Course Testimonials

"I want to thank you for offering this class. I found all of the information fascinating. I enjoyed hearing the interviews with the researchers and the lectures from all of you. Since I work full time, it was nice to have it all available online so that I could watch it when I had time. I think you did a great job of targeting this to "citizen scientists" and made the information thorough but easily understood by those who may not have a background in science."

"The material was presented so clearly and simply, even on complex topics, that I had absolutely no trouble understanding any of it. I was so surprised to find myself getting positively excited about what I was learning! I never would have put exciting and microbiology/biochemistry in the same sentence before. Well done!"

"Thank you for a great introduction to this new and exciting field. I think microbial manipulation will be a major part of medicine in the future. And thanks for having a range of guests so we could get a broad introduction to microbiomics. In regards to the production values of the whole package - excellent!"

"I learned a LOT from you, and enjoy passing on interesting, scientific information that encourages people to have healthy diets. I thought this course was the best I've taken on Coursera. Your approach was very respectful of us students."

"Fantastic! I learned so much. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your excitement about your research. It was a real privilege to learn about the cutting edge research going on in the Knight Lab and to access this course for free."


Dr. Rob Knight - Professor | Howard Hughes Medical Institute | Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Computer Science | BioFrontiers Institute
Dr. Jessica L. Metcalf - Senior Research Associate | BioFrontiers Institute
Dr. Katherine R. Amato - Postdoctoral Research Associate | Department of Anthropology | BioFrontiers Institute
Doris Cheung - Academic Technology Consultant | OIT | Project Lead
Mark Gammon - Academic Technology Consultant | OIT
Marin Stanek - Director of Academic & Campus Technology Communications & Support | OIT | Project Sponsor