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Tales of the Body: Bridging the Communication Gap in Science Education through Online Learning

By Aja Couchois Duncan

October 16, 2013

Watch the video introducing Anne Friedlander's Environmental Physiology course.

The human body is as mysterious as it is amazing. In Dr. Anne Friedlander's Environmental Physiology course – which will be offered as a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to the public this winter – the body’s mysteries and its amazing adaptations are revealed through a mix of compelling stories, expert interviews, and thought-provoking lectures organized into chapters on specific areas of interest in physiology.

Friedlander, consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University, and an athlete and scientist, first created the course out of a passion for the science of physiology. But the MOOC version, Environmental Physiology: Your Body in the World, was driven by another interest as well. “There is a gap,” she says, “between how we communicate scientific information and the people who we want to reach, those who would be most interested in it. As scientists we are trained to talk only to each other. But science, particularly the science of the human body, affects everyone every day.”

Physiology as Story

“Stories are the foundation for most learning,” says Friedlander. “Our brains are programmed to process stories that have some type of emotional content that we can connect to. This enables us to engage and put information into a context.”  When we do this, the information is integrated and retained.

Enter Corey Dysick, the experimental subject of the course and the protagonist of the environmental physiology story, Where’s Corey Now? or even more accurately, What in the World is Happening to Corey Now? Dysick, who is the teaching assistant, a decathlete, and Stanford alumnus, is exposed to a number of extreme environments to explore the impact these environments have on his­–and by extension our own–body.

Corey Dysick, left, and Anne Friedlander rode fighter planes to experience the effects of g-forces on human physiology and to prepare material for their course on environmental physiology.

In one chapter, Dysick and Friedlander spend 48 hours at Pikes Peak, the summit of a 14,114-foot mountain in central Colorado, to study the impact of high altitude on the body. In another, they fly fighter planes to experience the effects of g-forces, a measurement of acceleration felt as weight, on their physiology. In the chapter on stress, Dysick and Friedlander jump from a plane at 15,000 feet in the Nevada desert to explore the physiologic responses to extreme stress on heart rate, cognition, and the body’s pain threshold. And, thanks to advances in production quality, course participants are immersed in sensorially rich videos and get to experience these events with them.

Each of the chapters are followed by interviews with experts who have been studying the impact of environmental stressors on the body and master athletes who have accomplished extraordinary feats such as scaling Mount Everest. These interviews are coupled with Dr. Friedlander’s inquiry-based lectures covering key concepts, the latest scientific findings about the impact of extreme environments on the human body, and practical tips on how people can mitigate some of these effects.

Anne Friedlander jumped out of a plane at 15,000 feet to explore the physiologic responses to extreme stress on heart rate, cognition, and the body’s pain threshold.

Friedlander designed the online course so that participants will walk away with a basic understanding of environmental physiology—of how the human body fits into the world. But more than that, she wants people to gain a full appreciation of the human body’s capacity. “Humans are the most adaptable animals on the planet,” she says. “We can go from extremely low temperatures to high temperatures, from low altitude to high altitude, and survive pretty well.”

Pushing the Edge of Online Education

Through its seed grant program, the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) provided Friedlander with technology and video production expertise to support her inquiry-based learning goals. According to Dr. Amy Collier, the director of digital learning initiatives for VPOL, “the grant enabled Anne [Friedlander] to develop the story-telling component of the course, creating a meaningful narrative for science education.”

As a result of the story-based teaching methodology, Collier explains, “course participants can formulate their own hypothesis regarding what is happening to Dysick’s body based on interactions between the external environment and his physiological responses.”

Corey Dysick tests his mettle upside down in a fighter plane.

Dysick knows viscerally the impact the course has had on his own understanding of physiology. “I’ve learned a ton,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn first hand how my body changes in response to extreme conditions. But more than that,” notes Dysick, “participants are getting closer to the origins of the material they are learning. Instead of reading textbooks, participants travel with us to labs around the country as we talk with scientists whose research is generating the knowledge they are gaining through the course.”

As one of anumber of public online courses being offered this winter though OpenEdX, Stanford’s open source platform, Friedlander’s Environmental Physiology course reflects the university’s willingness to openly share learning opportunities that result from faculty experiments with online instruction in their own classrooms. For example, Friedlander’s winter MOOC course content is being used —flipped classroom style—to teach her Stanford Exercise Physiology (HB135) course this fall. Support for the flipped content came from the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and the Program in Human Biology.

Stanford’s use of OpenEdX enables course material to be shared widely and repurposed for other learning settings, because when using the open-source platform, universities control the licenses for their content and can release content in a variety of configurations to a variety of audiences without special permission from a third-party platform owner. It also means the platform itself is available for use by other universities and educational providers.

“Our main goal is to improve teaching and learning through the effective use of technology,” says Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell. “There are many ways to use technology creatively in on-campus courses; MOOCs are one model that enable us to experiment and collect data. By advancing faculty-driven teaching initiatives, we can transform the way time is spent in the classroom.  We can share the content we develop openly with other educational institutions and share new features as we add them to the OpenEdX platform.”

This is especially important to Friedlander who sees in the OpenEdX platform the opportunity to address the gaps in scientific education on a much larger scale. “Other institutions can adapt the course for their student populations. Teachers in high schools can use the material to enhance their science classes or instructors at community colleges can build physiology courses around some of the units. Really” she says, “the sky is the limit.”

“This is one of the benefits of a Stanford OpenEdX MOOC,” she says.But the benefits of the Environmental Physiology MOOC go beyond its open platform and broad access. According to Friedlander, “all of the background work that has gone into designing this course has made me a better teacher.”

 Dysick, too, has become a better teacher; he is inspired to continue creating new ways to make learning more interactive. He will likely never forget the effects of altitude on his body or the science that describes and explains this impact. And MOOC participants who engage in the chapter on altitude will likely never forget it either.  

To register for this course, which starts January 13, 2014, go to http://online.stanford.edu/course/environmental-physiology-winter-2014

See related story, Stanford MOOC goes to extremes to teach Environmental Physiology

Aja Couchois Duncan writes occasionally for the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning.

Media Contact

Judith Romero, Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning: (650) 725-7289, judith.romero@stanford.edu