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Blood, sweat (but no tears) in Stanford HumBio class

Podcasts by students, followed by action videos, make exercise physiology real, very real.

Anne Friedlander's teaching assistant Corey Dysick not only donated his body to science, he donated it to the cause of online learning, a twin accomplishment that by rights should earn the former Stanford pole-vaulter and decathlete some sort of medal.

Friedlander's seminar (HumBio135s: Applied Topics in Exercise Physiology and Metabolism) in spring 2012 focused on stress, exercise, fatigue and performance by looking at muscular and cardiovascular responses to exercise. It's the sort of class an avid hiker and cyclist might teach to a group of insanely active students, or to students who after they graduate from medical school hope to treat the insanely active.

Composite by Carlos Seligo using image by Nicola FaveroResearcher Anne Friedlander and teaching assistant Corey Dysick.

Anne Friedlander, left, consulting professor in human biology, teaches Applied Topics in Exercise Physiology and Metabolism. Subjecting her TA, Corey Dysick, right, to high-altitude conditions will enable students to better understand the complex adaptations that occur in response to low-oxygen environments.

Friedlander, a consulting professor in the Program in Human Biology, asked students to first write a scientific paper and then create podcasts telling the same story. For example, what does going to the moon do to astronauts' bones? What is the impact on muscle growth of intentionally restricting blood flow, and how can that burning sensation be used to the body's advantage?

Friedlander has always loved science on the radio, so she knows it's possible to do it well. But she needed help. So she contacted the Stanford Storytelling Project (SSP), an organization devoted to promoting the place of oral storytelling in our lives and work.

"People reject science in part because science hasn't known how to message properly," Friedlander said. "It's hard to express subtlety; people want either black or white. So how can we tell subtleties? Storytelling is one way to engage people in the process of understanding."

Inspired by her students' podcasts, Friedlander obtained a seed grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL). She realized that much of the instruction by the Storytelling staff could be turned into videos so that she could devote classroom time to physiology. And, she hoped, the videos could allow instruction to be scaled so other science classes could use them.

So throughout winter quarter 2013, while SSP director Jonah Willihnganz stood before whiteboards or sat at his laptop in a seminar room and talked students through the elements of narrative, Carlos Seligo, the HumBio academic technology specialist, kept the cameras rolling.

'We're born into story'

On one particular day, the operative word was SLURP: "Stories are the best vehicle for Learning, Understanding, Remembering and Persuading," Willihnganz said.

"Most of you are going to remember the story better than the research paper," he told the camera. "That's because our brains are narrative machines. We are born into story. We understand life through stories. We slurp up stories."

He walked students through software that helps overlay script, sound effects and music to make podcasts. Students watching these videos will make new podcasts, which, in turn, should help future students learn physiology and tell their own science stories.

"The iterative component of the class really is new," Seligo said after another shoot. "These are projects building on projects."

Friedlander's thinking about science and storytelling last spring stuck with her all summer. By then she had won the VPOL seed grant to put Willihnganz in front of the camera, but the wheels kept turning in fall as she taught her lecture course on exercise physiology.

Enter Dysick.

He was one of two teaching assistants, Sanford Roberts III being the other, whose experiences became part of the curriculum. While Dysick, '12, did endurance exercise and Roberts, a senior, did weight training, Friedlander and Seligo shot video. And that was the beginning of Friedlander's next project.

Carlos SeligoCorey Dysick sitting in a tub of cold water

For the class, Corey Dysick was immersed in a tub of cold water and then attempted manual exercises, allowing students watching a video to understand the impact of cold on heart rate, body temperature and dexterity.

"The first project, storytelling, is to help students with science communication," Friedlander said. "The second project, videos on exercise, is to help me teach others and engage students in the physiology itself. I think this is pretty unique in that there's an overarching story that ties all the modules together: Where's Corey now?"

Where indeed? In one of the first modules, he was getting really cold in biologist H. Craig Heller's lab in Gilbert Hall. Dysick sat in a bathtub of cold water in a tiny room resembling a meat locker that was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. He was talkative and cheerful at first, but gradually the filmed chatter with Friedlander, cruelly dressed in a ski jacket, dwindled as Dysick shivered and shook.

The idea is that students in the lecture class will be following his travails, keeping track of his heart rate and temperature, watching the poor man fumble with shoelaces after emerging from the tub and then walking on a treadmill. More important, they will evaluate the data and physical impairment as it is recorded on embedded charts in the video.

In another module, Dysick and Roberts met one morning at the Health Performance Laboratory in the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation accompanied by Friedlander and Seligo. The mission was to track Dysick's performance on a stationary bicycle after not having eaten since the previous evening.

After 20 minutes of riding, he had a glass of orange juice concentrate with a water chaser, and, to no one's surprise, felt jittery. Back on the bike, he flagged as his blood glucose plummeted. He hit rock bottom and then, suddenly, his body kicked in and started pushing the levels back up.

"It felt like my muscles were starving," he said afterward.

"There's a lot of physiology behind that," Friedlander observed. "The high carbohydrate load actually made his performance worse, which shows how hormones that regulate blood sugar levels interact with muscle contractions. Our goal with the videos is to present surprising results that make students want to learn more."

Getting hot

A couple of weeks later, Friedlander again asked Seligo's camera, "Where's Corey now?"

"We're back in Craig Heller's lab," she said. "Last time we cooled Corey off, and this time we'll heat him up. We'll test his physical and cognitive reactions to see how the body regulates its core temperature. We'll try to manipulate that to see how the body gets rid of heat."

Turning to Dysick, she asked, "You grew up in Arizona, right?"

Yes, but nothing like this ever happened to him there: two layers of thick U.S. Army fatigues, gloves, balaclava, a treadmill and an esophageal tube to keep track of vitals in a room that now measured 104 degrees.

"Good teaching requires staying fresh and trying new things," Friedlander said afterward. "I could never have presented all this data to my students in such a compelling way if it weren't for the videos. And it was the podcasts that got me thinking about how to harness technology to improve my teaching and really get the message across."

The first day of the spring quarter class was showtime. Students were going to learn how to tell science stories. They'd watch the Stanford Storytelling Project videos and make their own podcasts, which, in turn, will be used by students in the future.

Meanwhile, Dysick and Friedlander will get to work on the next episodes of "Where's Corey now?" There are well-founded rumors of Pike's Peak, diving with Navy SEALs and aging-simulation suits.

In addition to the VPOL seed grant, funding for this project came from the Office of the Dean of Humanities and Sciences and the Program in Human Biology.

R. F. MacKay is a writer for the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning.