of Classroom Visits by the Experts? Priceless
agenda for Biology 323: a face-to-face conversation with
Brigid Hogan, one of the world’s leaders in stem cell research
and transgenic technology, a professor of cell biology at
Duke University and director of the Duke Stem Cell Program.
It’s February 14, 2011, and
students in this course, taught by Michael Barresi, assistant
professor of biological sciences, have been studying the
development of adult stem cells. Today’s is one of several
visits they will host with world-renowned experts in the
field of stem cell biology.
Students in Michael
Barresi's class, Developmental Biology, converse
with Sofie Salama via Web conference.
Normally, the cost for such
visits would be prohibitive, possibly running to five figures,
not to mention considerable outlay of time to arrange logistics.
The cost for Hogan’s visit, and of other
preeminent scientists throughout the semester: not a penny.
Through the use of
Skype software, the interactions between Barresi’s students, in “Topics in Developmental
Biology: Stem Cells and Their Amazing ‘Potential,’” and their guests take place
via Internet conference.
Though the cost is low, the
benefits of these sessions are too great to measure, says
“This pedagogical approach is one of the best things I’ve done,” said Barresi,
who has been coordinating Web conferences for two biology courses since 2005. “It
really gets to the heart of learning. We’re going straight to the source who
wrote the material we study in class.”
Barresi’s classes, including his course Biology 302, “Developmental Biology,” have
hosted more than two dozen scientists, all leaders in their fields and specialties,
Nobel Prize winners among them.
“I’m kind of hoping with the Web conferences that my students will also begin
to get an idea of what the scientific community is,” Barresi explained, “what
they look like, how they talk, how they got where they are.”
Therefore, the Web conferences
always begin by asking the visitors to talk about their backgrounds,
their paths to becoming scientists.
“I don’t know quite when I fell in love with embryos but it was early on,” recalls
Hogan, who is from northern England, to a class of 14 seated in a cavernous room
deep inside the Media Services Center on Feb. 14.
The room is slightly darkened
to enhance her image on screen. She is seated, in her office,
it appears, with a standing lamp lighting her environs, framed
degrees on the wall. Hogan’s face
fills most the screen; for her, looking at her computer screen, a class of forward-facing
students. “I spent a lot of time outside growing up, looking at nature, working
with living things and how they develop.”
The students have prepared for
the session by reading and analyzing notable writings by
Hogan—or whomever the speaker happens to be—then preparing questions.
Hogan, who focuses her research on the cellular structure
of lungs, students ask, for example, about the development
of adult stem cells; what the use of stem cells may mean
for lung cancer therapies in the future; and whether it is
worth harvesting human embryonic stem cells for research.
Barresi became interested in
Web conferencing as a way to dig deeper to the source of
the topics covered in class. Experts asked to visit Barresi’s
class are chosen after he devises a reading list. Once he decides on pertinent
readings, he contacts authors of some of the class materials to request a Web
“I wanted to take our study of these topics to the next step,” he said. “Let’s
go to the people who actually did the work.”
Useful as the Web conferences
are to Barresi’s classes, much of their value carries
over long after the class session is done. Following the conferences, Barresi
posts the sessions on his Web site in their entirety, arranged with the questions
followed by a clickable answer from the expert recorded during the conference.
He often refers to past sessions with experts in subsequent courses.
is the most enthusiastic user of Web conferencing among Smith
faculty, others, mostly in the sciences and engineering,
have used the method as well.
Susannah Howe, a senior lecturer
in engineering and director of the Design Clinic, has found
the tool useful for hosting guest speakers from afar.
“I’ve really appreciated being able to bring people from farther away and not
imposing too much on their time,” she said. Howe is hosting a series of “Career
Spotlights” via Skype this spring, in which guests briefly discuss their careers,
followed by student questions. “Speakers are very willing to share their experiences
and time with the students. So far, the experience has been a resounding success.”
Web conferencing is only one
way Barresi uses technology to teach. He has also pioneered
Lecture Capture on campus, a software package with which
he records his lectures and posts them online so that students
can “re-attend” class while
working on their own. And he assigns his students in the stem cell course to
make a documentary film on stem cells, which is posted on his Web site.
teaching methodology is about using all available avenues
to getting the points across—in-class lectures, demonstrations, field trips, whatever it takes.
“I’m a very adventurous person, so I like to try new things,” he said. “But I
use the chalkboard, too, the blackboard, the whiteboard…”