April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
Justice takes frosh seminar 'on the road' by teleconference
Professor Jay Justice wanted to teach a freshman seminar in chemistry this semester. In this bridge year between the old and new curricula he developed course called "Chemistry of Drugs and the Brain," one of a handful of freshman seminars in the natural sciences. "I thought I'd touch on subjects I knew would get covered in later classes," he explained. "Then, when they take those courses, they'll already know something about an interesting aspect of the subject and maybe have some incentive to learn more."
Chemistry 190 contains an "awful lot that we're talking about that I know little about," Justice admitted. "My research involves a very special part of the brain." Justice sought outside help in his course lectures, rounding up a group of Emory professors from the psychology and biology departments, the School of Medicine and Yerkes--the "backbone" of the course, Justice said. He also invited national experts to visit the class via teleconference.
The class meetings 217 Woodruff Library, a multimedia showcase that boasts a 60-inch computer monitor, flanked by two more monitors measuring 35 inches each. On days when the class hosts a "visiting" videoconference lecturer, Educational Analyst Scott Sawyer mans the controls while Justice and his students hold class.
Justice hopes for lively interaction. "With videoconferencing, you have to get them out of the mode that they're watching t.v.," he said. One recent class hosted Marina Wolf of the neuroscience program at the University of Chicago Medical School. Shortly after her lecture began, Justice said to his students, "I just want to remind people you're not watching t.v. This is an interactive media," he stressed.
Students sat around the room with mini-microphones dangling over their heads to capture their questions for Wolf. While she lectured, Sawyer switched back and forth between a half dozen chemical structure diagrams and visuals Wolf could see in Chicago and comment on. When students asked questions, Sawyer trained one of the room's four cameras on them, so Wolf could see them.
Justice concedes that videoconferencing technology is "not yet second nature yet." He relies heavily on Sawyer to handle the controls--"somebody needs to be able to focus on that because I need to be able to focus on what we're talking about," he said. But, he added, "you don't want to have too many types of technology going on at once. You've got to remember that you're in a class with students, not playing with toys," Justice said.
Justice did express some disappointment with the Chicago videoconference, however. "There was a single camera [on Wolf's end] and the angle was too low," he said. "I had assumed that everyone else would have a room just like ours. Now I know at least what to ask for. As you go along with this, you learn how to do things a little differently."
Justice doesn't just rely on this type of whiz-bang technology to teach the class, he's also incorporated the World Wide Web. "I've been wanting to use the web for both 'selfish' and pedagogical reasons for a while now," he said. He was beginning to find the practice of using overheads cumbersome and frustrating.
In room 217, he can project a web site. The web "not only creates an organization for you, it's a very flexible medium," Justice noted. He uses the web as both a syllabus and an information source. "A day's assignment will not only have links to various subjects I want them to look at, but also readings for the next class. Figures become more powerful because they contain 'hot spots' to more detailed information," Justice said.
One of his favorite web sites belongs to University of California at Los Angeles and features an animated positron emission tomography (PET) scan that shows how the brain changes in response to drugs. The time-lapse photography shows changes at 15 minute intervals, Justice said.
"The web is still one-way communication that doesn't provide communication with me," Justice said. For that he uses LearnLink, a busy, back-and-forth effort by him and his students--and not always about class topics. One student posted an e-mail message sent from an address at the University of Pennsylvania warning about the cancer-causing properties of "sodium laureth (sic) sulfate," found in shampoo and other products. "Professor Justice, is this true?" the student queried plaintively. Justice used the opportunity as a teaching moment, first spelling the chemical name accurately--it's sodium laurel sulfate--and then explaining its molecular structure. "I would not put a lot of faith in this," Justice wrote. "And I would certainly continue to shampoo," he added, using the e-mail symbol for a smile-[ :) ].