Stanford MOOC goes to extremes to teach Environmental Physiology

Researchers Anne Friedlander and Corey Dysick spent 48 hours at the 14,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak to study the impact of high altitude on the body for a Stanford online course.

Video introducing Anne Friedlander's Environmental Physiology course.

The human body is amazing, as is the video that accompanies Anne Friedlander's Environmental Physiology course – which will be offered as a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to the public this winter.

To dramatically demonstrate the body's mysteries and its amazing adaptations, Friedlander, a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford as well as an athlete and scientist, created a series of stories and endurance tests, with the video camera rolling.

She was joined by 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?

Corey Dysick, teaching assistant for the course as well as a decathlete and Stanford alumnus, was exposed to a number of extreme environments to explore the impact these environments have on his – and, by extension, everyone's – body.

Stressing heart and brain

For one chapter, Dysick and Friedlander spent 48 hours at central Colorado's Pikes Peak, which tops out at 14,114 feet above sea level, to study the impact of high altitude on the body. In another, they flew in fighter planes to experience the effects of g-forces, or extra gravities.

In the chapter on stress, Dysick and Friedlander jumped from a plane at 15,000 feet over the Nevada desert to explore physiological responses to extreme stress on heart rate, cognition and pain threshold.

Participants in the class will be immersed in the resulting sensory-rich videos.

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

Friedlander 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 between how we communicate scientific information and the people who we want to reach, those who would be most interested in it," she said. "As scientists, we are trained to talk only to each other. But science, particularly the science of the human body, affects everyone every day.

Greg MaximovDysick and Friedlander

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.

"Stories are the foundation for most learning," Friedlander said. "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." As a result, the information is integrated and retained.

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

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 Amy Collier, the director of digital learning initiatives for VPOL, "The grant enabled Anne 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 said, "Course participants can formulate their own hypotheses regarding what is happening to Dysick's body based on interactions between the external environment and his physiological responses."

Dysick said the course has had a major impact on his own understanding of physiology. "I've learned a ton," he said. "I've had the opportunity to learn firsthand how my body changes in response to extreme conditions. But more than that, 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."

Shared opportunities

As one of a number 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 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," said Vice Provost for Online Learning John Mitchell. "There are many ways to use technology creatively in on-campus courses and MOOCs are one model that enable us to experiment.

"By advancing faculty-driven teaching initiatives, we can transform how time is spent in the classroom and then share the content we develop openly with other educational institutions. We can also share new features as we add them to the OpenEdX platform."

This is especially important to Friedlander, who said she sees in the OpenEdX platform the opportunity to address gaps in scientific education on a large 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, the sky is the limit.

"This is one of the benefits of a Stanford OpenEdX MOOC," she said. 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."

To register for this course, which starts Jan. 13, go to

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

Judith Romero, Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning: (650) 725-7289,