Glowing algebra theorems and glimpses into hospital make science lessons unique

UChicago students learn remotely from mathematician in Russia, through daily office hours, from COVID-19 doctors

Class had already started, but Asst. Prof. Anna Clebone had just come from the operating room at University of Chicago Medicine. So the 54 students in her bio course watched on Zoom as she discussed how the body responds to high altitude while peeling off the PPE needed to treat patients during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Watching someone taking off all that equipment and slowly becoming a person again on camera is really striking,” said Prof. Keith Ruskin, also an instructor in the course. “I think that made a big impression on the students; they still mention it during the class and ask about our experiences in the hospital.”

Clebone and Ruskin are two of three University of Chicago scholars teaching an undergraduate class this spring called “Physiology in Extreme Environments.” The title originally referred to how human bodies adapt to arid deserts, deep dives underwater and high-altitude flights, but it’s apropos for this quarter since two of its instructors are treating coronavirus patients. 

Like other classes at the University this Spring Quarter, instructors have had to get a little creative. 

Extreme teaching

“Physiology in Extreme Environments” is a flipped class, meaning students watch a pre-recorded lecture and the live part is a discussion section. This allows both professors and students to tune in from anywhere in the world, like the OR, or even NASA.

“We wanted to make sure students are interacting—giving them a sense they have a community, even though everyone is scattered around the world,” Ruskin said.

A big part of the course is virtual visits from guests such as Col. Brian Musselman with the U.S. Air Force, a specialist in high-altitude flight; or two scientists with NASA’s NEEMO mission who had lived in an undersea research station for 60 days.

“It’s really a hallmark of the class to have all these different perspectives,” said Asst. Prof. Fred Garcia, a neuroscientist and third teacher of the course. “I think it gets at the heart of the idea of this course, which is biology and physiology for non-majors—and you see how the same basic principles of knowledge are adapted and used a hundred different ways. I talked about Boyle’s Gas Law early in the course in the context of inflating the lungs, but Col. Musselman brought it up totally independently in calculating air pressure in the gondola during a record-setting parachute jump from the edge of space.”

Clebone noted another small upside to teaching virtually: “Although communication over remote learning can be challenging, one advantage of Zoom is the chat function. Hopefully, students feel more comfortable asking questions in the chat window, which there might not be time for during a traditional class, or students might otherwise hesitate to ask.”

Though the routine of holding class helps give the students a sense of normalcy in a time of upheaval, the same is true for the professors.

“I’m having a blast teaching this course,” Ruskin said. “It can get intense in the hospital, and it’s so wonderful to work with these incredibly smart students. It really is the high point of my week.”

Lights, camera ... linear algebra

If you’re taking one of Asst. Prof. Daniil Rudenko’s abstract linear algebra classes online this quarter, you might be confused about where you are. Maybe you’re in Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace, where his thoughts appear on the screen in a glowing scrawl. Or maybe you’re in an old Disney Channel commercial, where actors stencil in the neon logo to the bottom left of the screen.

Asst. Prof. Daniil Rudenko researched lights, markers, and filming and editing techniques to remotely film YouTube videos from Russia

To viewers, it appears Rudenko is scribbling mathematical theorems and corollaries straight onto their computer monitors. But by using something called a lightboard, the right camera and fancy editing work, Rudenko has managed to bring color—and ingenuity—to his pre-recorded YouTube lectures.

“I have never been a confident user of technology, so at first I was really scared of online teaching,” said Rudenko, who is working this quarter from Russia. “But then I started to think about my options and learned about lightboards. The main advantage is that you can write and face the (virtual) audience unlike with the usual blackboards.”

More than a month into remote learning at UChicago, and Rudenko’s classes are a hit with College students.

“You can tell he put a lot of effort into these, and it helps to keep you engaged since the layout makes lectures feel a lot more natural, despite being recorded,” said first-year student Matias Pietruszka, an economics and statistics major.

Rudenko was able to learn about the right lights and markers to use—and the filming and editing techniques used to mirror and flip his writing so it’s correct for the viewer.

“I am teaching these five classes together with two other instructors,” Rudenko he said. “All of us do online classes to have more interaction with students, talk freely about the material, discuss examples, etc. Students can watch these lectures at any moment and ask their questions during online sessions.”

Not everything can be replicated in Rudenko’s home studio, however.

“The hardest part is to add jokes,” he said. “Without a live audience, I don’t have much inspiration for that. Thankfully there are three cats around, which make students really happy.”

Quantitatively engaged

Dmitry Kondrashov has been teaching aspiring biologists how to understand their field quantitatively at UChicago for more than 10 years. It’s never been so remote (geographically), while also hitting so close to home (among the concepts they discuss are exponential growth models, widely used to understand the spread of COVID-19).

“But it’s a coding-heavy class, so it’s very much something you can do at home,” said Kondrashov, an instructional professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. “We just work to give them as many different ways and tools to connect with the concepts as possible.”

He posts tutorials in multiple formats, holds synchronous Zoom sessions for interactive demonstrations, and is aided by a team of TAs who host virtual smaller “lab sections” so that students can work together, and hold daily office hours that anyone can join.

“This is an incredibly stressful time for everyone, and so I wanted to be very clear about saying: ‘Here are the things that I want you to learn, and here are the resources to help you learn them,’” he said.

Farah Doughan, a first-year student in the class, said she appreciates Kondrashov’s commitment to ensuring students have all the tools they need as they adapt to a new learning system during a stressful time.

“His lectures are fun, even though they’re virtual. He has different backgrounds that he uses on Zoom, and uses a separate polling website to keep us engaged and get an idea of our understanding of the content,” she said. “He’s also just been really understanding about our circumstances and the difficulty of this transition.”