Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
For some people, tripping over a tree root might result in embarrassment, an expletive or even a sight injury. For Dan Fleisch, award-winning associate professor of physics, such a misstep resulted in an “a-ha” moment that has since led to a one-of-a-kind course with a high-tech twist.
After his brief fall while conducting research in Cambridge, England, last year, Fleisch realized that the roots of much of modern science began in the labs, homes, locales and academic institutions across the United Kingdom. From there, the conceptual framework for a new course, appropriately titled “The Roots of 21st-Century Science,” took hold, and, like Newton beneath the apple tree, Fleisch’s brainstorm quickly became a full-fledged undertaking.
Mai Trinh '09 of Hanoi, Upon his return to Wittenberg, Fleisch engaged fellow Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching recipient Tim Lewis, professor of biology, in the conversation, and together they spent nearly a year planning the innovative course. Fleisch enrolled in Lewis’ class on evolution, and the two met weekly. In November 2006, the two traveled to the United Kingdom to visit the proposed sites of study, and finalize the course’s goals and objectives.
“We wanted to find a way to take two seemingly unrelated disciplines, physics and biology, and weave them together using parts of the curriculum to tell the story,” Fleisch said.
As they continued to plan, the connections between biology and physics quickly revealed themselves. The students would study the origin and development of two important fields of 21st-century science, the life sciences a nd electromagnetic telecommunications.
While touring England, Lewis and Fleisch also realized the exciting technological opportunities a course of this kind could offer.
“By incorporating a technological component, the traditional boundaries of the classroom would dissolve, and more peer-to-peer teaching would occur,” Lewis said.
Leaders in integrating technology into their classes, Fleisch and Lewis quickly teamed up with Bob Rafferty ’02, director of new media and webmaster at Wittenberg, to work out all the hightech details.
“Bob brought incredible knowledge and energy, and the course wouldn’t have been the same without him,” Lewis said.
Together, the three determined that the course would be virtually paperless, relying instead on rich media to engage students in their studies, as well as show and tell what they experience firsthand.
“By visiting the actual locations at which the fundamental advances in the fields were made, students will learn not only the technical nature of those developments, but also the environmental and historical context in which they occurred,” Lewis explained. “Students will also learn to use a variety of digital hardware and software tools to enhance their understanding and to share their knowledge with others.”
With the course details ironed out and the high-tech component clear, Fleisch and Lewis submitted a proposal to Wittenberg’s new Transformation Investment Fund to purchase the necessary equipment to make their paperless class come to life. Upon approval, the two quickly ordered three MacBook Pros – Apple’s high-end laptops – along with several digital video cameras, still cameras, and all the necessary digital audio and video recording peripherals. Additionally, each student received a 30-GByte video iPod pre-loaded with various course materials and on which they could store the digital information produced as the course progressed. Rafferty would also accompany the class for the first half of the course to ensure that everything went smoothly on the technical end.
“Much of the work in this course will be done digitally through audio podcasts, videos that all of us shoot, edit and post online, as well as audio and video blogs, and every manner of digital imagery, including sound clips, videos and animations,” Lewis and Fleisch told the student participants as they prepared for their trip across the Atlantic.
All of their work would then be featured on a special URL via Wittenberg’s Web site so that friends, family members, colleagues, the campus community and the world at-large could learn with them and share in their journey. Conversely, those following online would be able to ask questions and post comments, to which the students and faculty could discuss and respond.
The Journey Begins
With equipment in hand, 10 students accepted the high-tech challenge and headed to the United Kingdom, May 14-30, to study the life sciences and electromagnetic telecommunications. They included Jessica McClish ’07 of Shelby, Ohio; Katherine Kalinoski ’08 of Granville, Ohio; Melissa Ketterman ’08 of Cincinnati, Ohio; Nicholas Gladman ’08 of Columbus, Ohio; Caroline Rentz ’09 of Cincinnati, Ohio; Erin Kapp ’09 of Gibsonia, Pa.; Jaclyn Flickinger ’09 of South Amherst, Ohio ; Rebecca Ajer ’09 of Spring Valley, Calif.; Christopher Nyiri ’10 of Nashville, Tenn., and Lisa Kroupa ’10 of Cridersville, Ohio.
Together with Fleisch, Lewis and Rafferty, the students traveled distinct yet related paths during the two-week trek. The life science component of the course began in Edinburgh and 50 miles to the east, where geologist James Hutton discovered conclusive evidence of the Earth’s ancient age in the rock formations in Siccar Point, Scotland. The class then followed the “development of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution at Down House, and the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick at Cavendish Lab in Cambridge and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College in London,” Fleisch and Lewis explained in the online materials for the course. The life science thread concluded in Edinburgh where the cloning of Dolly the sheep occurred in 1995.
“Edinburgh served as the perfect location in which to end our course because it is there where we were able to see just how far we’ve come in manipulation of the natural world,” Kalinoski wrote in her blog during the course.
“In Darwin’s house we learned his theory for the origin of species. Darwin believed in evolution and the passing down of advantageous traits, but he did not know the mechanism by which this was taking place. We then learned how DNA was this mechanism as we studied the discovery of its shape and structure at King’s College in London. By returning to Edinburgh, we were able to see how scientists have used this discovery to successfully complete a highly controversial process; cloning,” she continued.
In Cambridge, we “[also] visited the Sedgwick Museum and the Zoology Museum; both showed life through the ages and all of the small changes of organisms that have led to their modern-day descendents (skeleta l structures, habitat choice, etc.),” added Nick Gladman ’08 in his blog. “Darwin collected [similar] data and eventually published his book, On the Origin of Species, which was a radical idea at the time and would advance biology into the next century.”
The Telecommunications component followed a similar path beginning with “Michael Faraday’s work at the Royal Institution in London followed by the development of electromagnetic theory by James Clerk Ma xwell,” Fleisch explained.
As part of the students’ study of Maxwell, Fleisch arranged to use the late renowned physicist’s childhood home in Edinburgh, now owned by a foundation in his name, for a few of their classroom sessions.
“In these rooms, we talked about cultural, environmental and familial influences on the young James Clerk Maxwell, and students also learned about the ground-breaking development in electrical science that was made by Michael Faraday in London in the year of Maxwell’s birth,” Fleisch noted.
From there, students continued the telecommunications thread by studying the “development of radar by Robert Watson-Watt at Bawdsey Manor in East Anglia, and the first transmission of radio waves across the Atlantic by Guglielmo Marconi,” Fleisch explained. The telecommunications thread culminated in Cornwall, home to the world’s largest satellite Earth station.
“This site represents the modern course of telecommunications: all the work that Maxwell, Marconi, and others did which manifested itself in this modern day mass telecommunication complex in Cornwall,” Gladman wrote in his blog. “We’ve traveled to such historic sites in the field of mass communication as the Lizard Wireless Station, Poldhu Wireless Station, and the Goonhilly Earth Station. All of these sites are important to the creation of radio and of modernday telecommunications.”
The Students Reflect
With each stop, the students immersed themselves in study and, like Gladman and Kalinoski, continued to share online much of what they learned. For some, the experience proved life-changing.
“Everything I learned during this trip is going to stay with me for the rest of my life,” Ajer wrote in her blog. “It was an amazing trip because of everything that went together,” she added. “The teachers, the group of students, the locations (and their history!), and the subject matter all came together for a fantastic learning experiment that was, in my opinion, a hands-down success.”
“This entire trip has been absolutely amazing,” added Kroupa. “I can’t even put into words how great of an opportunity this was for me to be able to learn so much about physics and biology on a much deeper level than I ever would have in a classroom, by seeing and exploring where scientific breakthroughs actually happened.
“It’s awesome to see how everything in the course connected to each other and related to other subjects other than the field that the scientific discoveries were being made in – a.k.a. the overlap between biology and geology when Darwin realized that time was a major factor in life, and evolution had to have occurred considering how old the rocks were that Hutton found at Siccar Point,” continued Kroupa, who, like all the participants, also found many more interconnected threads between the two disciplines.
“I have learned much during this class from geology to how to make sound ethical decisions, from Faraday to Goonhilly,” Nyiri said. “I have seen the length and breadth of this nation, and I have seen their similarities and differences. I have learned all that I can about evolution and electromagnetism. My views and knowledge about both are significantly different. I have now begun to see connections in science.”
Parents following their students’ collective journey a lso expressed gratitude and excitement for the course and the founders of it.
“What a powerful and motivational program, ‘Exploring the Roots of 21st-Century Science,’ was for my son,” Jack Nyiri ’73 recently shared with Fleisch and Lewis.
“Not only has Chris’ knowledge of science grown significantly, but his desire to learn more is running rampant. He is motivated for his summer chemistry classes and returning to campus in August. Not only have you ignited the flame of learning and passed it on, you have created the desire to learn more…. I can only guess at the effort required to put this program together. Probably many hours spent over several years. From the results I see, it was definitely worth it. The value added to his college experience is priceless.”
The students couldn’t agree more.
“This course, without a doubt, has exceeded my expectations,” Kalinoski concluded in her final blog. “I have learned so much and have made many memories that I know will last a lifetime.”
For more on the unique course, log on to www.wittenberg.edu, and click on the Roots of 21st-Century Science link.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112