Category Archives: Outreach and Education

Blended learning in physiology – merging new technologies with traditional approaches

By Louise Robson, @LouisescicommDepartment of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

Learning and teaching in physiology has undergone something of a revolution over the last 30 years, and as someone who had their very first teaching experience back in 1989 (running tutorials as a PhD student) I speak from experience! One of the biggest changes has been around digital technologies, bringing benefits and challenges to both students and staff. However, while there are challenges (e.g. information overload), for me the benefits far outweigh any challenges digital technologies generate.

I teach ion channel physiology, and aim for students to not only understand the ideas and concepts in this area, but also be able to apply these to novel experimental data. For this reason, I use data handling and interpretation exercises in my modules, i.e. students utilise mathematical approaches, interpret their data and draw on data from other sources. One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is that students struggle with mathematics, and I suspect I am not the only academic to observe a sea of white faces when I have equations on my slides!  However, my modules are very popular, despite the complex mathematics. The reason for this is my blended learning approach to teaching, matching traditional teaching with digital technologies.

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Figure 1:  Top tips for students on using lecture capture. Click here for more details: https://osf.io/edmzf/ (E, Nordmann et al, 2018).

In this approach, recorded lectures introduce calculations underpinning physiological mechanisms,  so that students can revisit to help their understanding. I have been using lecture capture for several years, and my experience is that it enhances learning. I have observed an increase in academic performance in my final year modules, and the types of questions students ask are more insightful. They utilise the captures to get to grips with the lecture content and their higher level questions are then often about the published literature. Of course if you are providing captures it is really important that students understand how to use these. Work by a cross-institutional group of academics, of which I am a member, has recently provided top tips for students and staff on using lecture capture, also presenting these in a student-friendly infographic format, Figure 1 (E, Nordmann et al 2018). his work highlights an important but often forgotten aspect of learning and teaching, share your ideas and experiences and collaborate with others.  

The best way to learn is to do, and my students complete formative data handling workbooks that reinforce lectures and provide additional guidance. This allows students to develop skills in a low risk environment, and feed-forward and improve for the assessments. Problem solving classes require students to apply their knowledge and skills, providing an opportunity for personal feedback. I also provide dynamic maths videos for them to view. Using a variety of approaches allows students to work in the way they find most beneficial (one size does not fit all in education). The final module session tests knowledge and understanding using the interactive Lecture Tools platform, allowing students to test knowledge and understanding. This blended approach provides an enhanced learning experience for the students, and is clearly appreciated by them, as they have voted me best Biomedical Science Lecturer at Sheffield several years in a row.  

Many of you reading this article may be in the early years of your academic careers, and while there is lots of advice on developing your research profile, there is often less structured support on developing learning and teaching. So here are my top tips:

  1. Get experience early on.  I started as a PhD student and continued to gain experience as a postdoctoral researcher.  
  2. Seek advice from experienced individuals.
  3. Identify the key developments in learning and teaching, and give them a go.
  4. Evaluate what you do.  Some things will work (but not everything).  Don’t forget ethical approval if you want to publish.
  5. Document innovation as you go.  In research, outputs are easy to define.  In learning and teaching, it’s not so easy!
  6. Always think about what is best for your students (note, it’s not always what they want).
  7. Share your ideas and collaborate as much as possible.  

I hope you have found this article useful, and that you have been able to identify some ideas for your learning and teaching development (if you want more information, just ask)!    

References

E, Nordmann, CE, Kuepper-Tetzel, L, Robson, S, Phillipson, GI, Lipan, P, McGeorge (2018). Lecture capture: Practical recommendations for students and lecturers (pre-publication): 10.31234/osf.io/sd7u4

Obesity: hamsters may hold the clue to beating it

Apply by 28 February for our Research Grants of up to £10,000 (over a 12 to 18-month period). This scheme supports physiologists in their first permanent academic position or returning to a permanent position after a career break, to provide support for their research or to provide seed-funding to start a new project. Gisela Helfer was a 2017 awardee of this grant, and you can read about her research below:

The global obesity crisis shows no signs of abating, and we urgently need new ways to tackle it. Consuming fewer calories and burning more energy through physical activity is a proven way to lose weight, but it’s clearly easier said than done. The problem with eating less and moving more is that people feel hungry after exercise and they have to fight the biologically programmed urge to eat. To develop effective ways to lose weight, we need a better understanding of how these biological urges work. We believe hamsters hold some clues.

Hamsters and other seasonal animals change their body and behaviour according to the time of year, such as growing a thick coat in winter or only giving birth in spring. Some seasonal animals can also adjust their appetite so that they aren’t hungry when less food is available. For example, the Siberian hamster loses almost half its body weight in time for winter, so they don’t need to eat as much to survive the winter months. Understanding the underlying physiological processes that drive this change may help us to understand our own physiology and may help us develop new treatments.

How hungry we feel is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus helps to regulate appetite and body weight, not only in seasonal animals but also in humans.

Tanycytes (meaning “long cells”) are the key cells in the hypothalamus and, amazingly, they can change size and shape depending on the season. In summer, when there is a lot of daylight and animals eat more, tanycytes are long and they reach into areas of the brain that control appetite. In winter, when days are shorter, the cells are very short and few.

These cells are important because they regulate hormones in the brain that change the seasonal physiology of animals, such as hamsters and seasonal rats.

Growth signals

We don’t fully understand how all these hormones in the hypothalamus interact to change appetite and weight loss, but our recent research has shown that growth signals could be important.

One way that growth signals are increased in the brain is through exercise. Siberian hamsters don’t hibernate; they stay active during the winter months. If hamsters have access to a running wheel, they will exercise more than usual. When they are exercising on their wheel, they gain weight and eat more. This is true especially during a time when they would normally be small and adapted for winter. Importantly, the increased body weight in exercising hamsters is not just made up of increased muscle, but also increased fat.

We know that the hamsters interpret the length of day properly in winter, or, at least, in a simulated winter day (the lights being on for a shorter duration), because they still have a white winter coat despite being overweight. We now understand that in hamsters the exercise-stimulated weight gain has to do with hormones that usually regulate growth, because when we block these hormones the weight gain can be reversed.

When people take up exercise, they sometimes gain weight, and this may be similar to what happens in hamsters when appetite is increased to make up for the increased energy being burned during exercise. This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t exercise during the winter, because we don’t naturally lose weight like Siberian hamsters, but it does explain why, for some people, taking up exercise might make them feel hungrier and so they might need extra help to lose weight.

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We need to find ways to overcome appetite. Lucky Business/Shutterstock.com

What we have learned from studying hamsters so far has already given us plenty of ideas about which cells and systems we need to look at in humans to understand how weight regulation works. This will create new opportunities to identify possible targets for anti-obesity drugs and maybe even tell us how to avoid obesity in the first place.

By Gisela Helfer@gi_helfer and Rebecca Dumbell

(This blog was originally published on The Conversation.)

I am bionic, I have aids in both ears: A Physiology Friday poem

By Simone Syndercombe, age 13, Newminster Middle School

I am as deaf as a post; don’t you see,

That’s why hearing is of interest to me.

Pin back your pinna and I will begin,

To tell you how sounds gets from out to within.

When my mum shouts with intention to berate,

Her speech makes the air from her mouth oscillate.

Hitting the pinna the shape does enhance,

The sound which is high pitched, to further advance.

Down through my ear canal, hitting the drum,

The sound is transferred into mechanical vibra-tion!

The eardrum is attached to a bony chain of three,

The malleus, the incus and the stapes, of me.

They act like a lever, enhancing the sound big,

Transferring the signal from middle to inner ear rig.

Through the oval window, the stapes does conduct,

Sound to the snail-shaped cochlear duct.

In this fluid-filled spiral are sensory cell hairs,

Attached to the basilar membrane, which cares,

Whether amplification or attenuation is desired,

Dampening or boosting before the auditory nerve fired,

Transferring the message to brainstem from ear,

The auditory nerve ensures that we can all hear.

I am bionic; I have aids in both ears,

As I have great difficulty hearing my peers.

Remember the mechanisms this poem’s about.

For I’m not ignoring you, you just need to shout!

Hearing is fascinating, I hope you’ll agree.

And that is why hearing is interesting to me.

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The amazing placenta: why you should do public engagement

By Emma Lofthouse, @Emlofthouse, The University of Southampton

I have taken it upon myself to spread the word about the brilliance of the placenta. It’s a fairly tricky task but someone has to do it.

Like all public engagement, this is a two-way dialogue that enables mutual learning between scientists and the public. It both fosters understanding, while providing an opportunity to discuss opinions, questions and concerns in an interactive way.

I created an interactive game called ‘the a-MAZE-ing placenta’, a game of physical skill that demonstrates the complexities of pregnancy and the many roles of the placenta in growing a healthy baby.

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The object of the game is to tilt the placenta maze to guide the ball (representing nutrients) to the centre of the maze (the umbilical cord) in the fastest time possible while avoiding obstacles. These represent pregnancy conditions and risks: a ‘smoking forest’ traps the ball, toxins and infections block the path of the ball, and pre-eclampsia makes the ball hit dead ends or narrowed pathways.

During the game, we talk to both parents and children about the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease hypothesis, which suggests that the conditions we experience in utero can impact our adult health and relate this to the obstacles in the game.

Through pick-up on Twitter, ‘the a-MAZE-ing placenta’ has since debuted at conference,; open days, country shows, science festivals and schools.

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Public engagement is now strongly encouraged in the research community with many funding bodies requiring public engagement activities as a condition of research grants. Outreach has great benefits for the public but just as many advantages for the scientist. It provides an opportunity to improve your communications skills with all types of audiences and gives you the opportunity to inspire someone.

Many researchers realise the importance of public engagement but are unsure of how to get involved. However, by simply talking to friends and family, you are already sharing your research and encouraging people to consider the relevance of science in their every day lives.

If you are looking to get involved with outreach, have a look at the opportunities that The Physiological Society provide including public engagement grants, Physiology Friday, the public engagement toolkit and ‘I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!’.

You can also become a STEM ambassador. Their events are designed to educate and more importantly, inspire young people to continue with STEM subjects at school and to help open their eyes to the careers that are available to them.

Top 10 Tips for Science Outreach

1. Keep it simple: Whether you want to share your research and passion for physiology, or promote The Physiological Society, the best thing to do is stick with a simple idea. It could be a free public lecture, a physiology pub quiz or even a stall with Society merchandise and leaflets. We’ve developed free outreach activities for you to use (or adapt to your own research), an you can also get inspiration from our case studies of events.

2. Decide on your audience: Is it undergrads studying physiology as part of their degree, the general public or school students? Our primary target audience is 16-25 year olds; we want to inspire the next generation of physiologists.

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3. Decide on a location: Depending on who you want to reach, this could be at your University, a school or somewhere in a community such as a library or shopping centre.

4. Contact your Society Representative: If you have one at your institution, get in contact with them as they may be able to help you with planning and have access to Society banners, magazines, and fliers to use at the event. If you don’t know who your Society Representative is or if you have one, please get in touch.

5. Recruit lots of helpers: Reach out to friends or colleagues for a helping hand. If you have your own students, try to get them involved and running the event. Anyone can organise an event on Physiology Friday whether it’s undergraduates, PhD students, postdocs or lecturers.

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6. Get funding: Approach The Society for a small grant to run your events. Also, a lot of universities have their own public engagement departments offering small pots of funding.

7. Reach out to organisations that can help you: If you are going to be working with school students then a great way to organise this is by becoming a STEM ambassador with STEM learning. They will do your DBS check for free and can help you to link up with schools in your area.

8. Entice people with freebies: You could hand out Society merchandise like our new sleep masks or leaflets with further info about your research. You could even have some kind of craft or food activity so that participants take their creation home.

9. Make it clear who you are and what you are about: A simple step is joining The Physiological Society and getting your very own I ❤ physiology T-shirt from us!

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10. Spread the word: Make sure you advertise your event as widely as possible. This of course depends on where it is being held. If it’s in the community you could try to promote it in newspapers or online. You could also make use of your university social media channels and get in touch with The Society.

Creating Champions: Road to the Olympics

By Kim Murray, Great Britain skeleton athlete, @KimMurray88

After years as a physiologist in elite sports, I thought I was pretty familiar with the life of an athlete. Then I became one myself: suddenly there was a team of support staff there to help me; numbers were being crunched and I wasn’t the one making the spreadsheet, but a data point on it. In the four years since I switched sides from exercise physiologist to full-time athlete in skeleton, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the mental and physical challenges that drive an ever better performance.

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I now train full-time in Bath, alongside around twenty other British skeleton athletes. We have a team of coaches, sport science staff and medical support staff working alongside us to produce champions. On a day to day basis I work with a coach, strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist. However, there is much more going on behind the scenes in terms of planning and data management as well as having access to nutrition, performance lifestyle and psychological support.

The life of an athlete is not quite what I expected. Day to day can be a grind; you must find something more within yourself when you’re tired to complete a session or pick up a new technique. You’re also constantly surrounded by super humans so although to the outside you seem physically unbelievable there is always a lot of internal competition and I can be very hard on myself. What has exceeded my expectations however, is what I have been able to achieve and experience, and the friends I have made in the short time I have been part of the team. You travel for half the year; visiting the most beautiful parts of the winter world, throwing yourself off the top of tracks, hitting 120 plus km/h (74 mph) and calling it work. Some days I just simply cannot believe this is my life.

 

The physiologist in the athlete

Having worked with athletes, I try to conduct myself in a way that I appreciated when working: filling in wellness and training data, minimising moaning, sleeping well, being honest about injury or illness. I remember what ‘athlete behaviours’ I should be striving to demonstrate and more to the point I know why they are important. I’ve spent enough time trying to get buy in from athletes and coaches to know how much more can be achieved when they comply. However, the emotion and enormity of what you’re trying to achieve can get to you; in my case, that is tightly linked with putting my physiology career on pause and the risk I took to follow the skeleton path. It can be a very testing environment and sometimes you just feel like your life is being determined by others or you’re not where you want to be in terms of making progress. In hindsight, these feelings are usually due to fatigue. When tired, you become less rational and the athlete behaviours can slip.

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Strength testing in the physiology lab

As the athlete, you’re not always involved in decision making and a lot goes on at a programme level that you don’t see. Our job is to put in the work, hit our goals and to grow as athletes and people. It is important to trust in the vision and direction of the performance director, coaches and support team. However, I sometimes find this difficult because I have a need to know why I do things. Having been part of athlete support teams, I am used to knowing the behind the scenes, so it was quite a big change to not always be a part of those conversations. If I am striving for a certain time on the push track or score on a physio test I ask why. Fortunately, as a more senior athlete I do now get to see more of what goes behind the training plans and goals. The team know my background so I quite often get to see a little more of the spreadsheet, as they know I am interested and will understand. This allows my inner spreadsheet geek to live on!

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Sprinting through a series of light gates is a way of measuring running speed

I don’t get to practise or apply exercise physiology in the way I used to. Yes, we use force plates and light gates, fill in wellness and training data, take part in special projects and so on, but when you’re the subject you’re not exposed to the same level of insight. What I am becoming though, is an expert of my body. How much sleep I need, what food I should eat, how I best warm up, what coaching cues help my performance, when I need more rest, what my peak power is, what a healthy body composition looks like for me. I am also further developing soft skills such as assertiveness, effective communication, team work and resilience. So, whilst I miss working as an exercise physiologist every day, I hope that this break will firstly, fulfil the desire to play the athlete and secondly grant me new skills and understanding from the athlete point of view that will be useful when I do return to work one day. In the meantime, I am giving skeleton my all and focusing on a huge goal: the 2022 Olympics in Beijing!

Open education: a creative approach to learning and teaching

By Vivien Rolfe, Associate Head of Department, UWE Bristol, UK, @vivienrolfe

A longer version of this article originally appeared in our magazine, Physiology News.

Open education, a means of widening access to education and materials, is not a new idea. Universities and teaching institutions have been inviting the public through their doors for centuries, and in more recent times ‘open’ universities have further championed the widening of access to formal education.

Open education was a dominant philosophy and practice in the 1970s. Unstructured curricula fostered creativity and supported diversity in learning, and knowledge was shared beyond the institution. The present reiteration of open education has similar underpinning ideals: providing an education system that shares, and is more inclusive and equitable.

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Open education – from content to practice

The relationship between shared open educational resources (OERs) and emerging open education practices is a hot topic of debate. Great work within schools, colleges and universities has clearly emerged through either the generation of openly licensed content (a good starting point), or the development of open practice and pedagogy.

A widely accepted framework for practice development is David Wiley’s ‘5 R’s’ (Wiley, 2014).  They stand for Retain (you control what happens to the resources you share) through to Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. This, in my experience, is a useful concept for teachers who aspire to develop their open practice

Open practice can extend the utility of our academic work within our institution, and even beyond the walls of our universities to a wider community of learners. In the UK, some notable examples include the University of Lincoln ‘Student as Producer’ project where students engaged as co-creators of open content, and the open photography course #Phonar at the University of Coventry which invited public collaboration and led to students working with professional communities as part of their learning.

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Much of the UK activity stemmed from the 2009 – 2012 HEFCE-funded Open Educational Resource programme. Over 85 projects spanned most subject disciplines, and were seminal in building the community of open practitioners that thrives today by bringing them together in an annual conference organised by the Association of Learning Technology (#OERXX). I have reported the reach and impact of the OERs produced by these projects, and of using web marketing techniques to share content online (Rolfe, 2016).

Open practice for life science practicals

My recent work has explored open pedagogies in an attempt to address challenges facing laboratory practical teaching. Practicals are timetabled laboratory events, and it is well documented that teaching staff and technical teams struggle to address the gaps between school and university in terms of laboratory experience, for an ever-increasing number of students (Coward and Gray, 2014). Student criticisms include no buzz, repetitive nature and lack of social engagement (Wilson, Adams and Arkle, 2008).

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So in my experience, what are some of the benefits and challenges of open educational practises in practicals?

Open education projects at De Montfort University included OERs on laboratory skills. Still accessible today via the project website and YouTube, these relatively low quality materials by today’s standards, were popular with students and boosted their confidence before entering the laboratory for the first time: “[Virtual Analytical Laboratory] has been very useful in easing my nerves before lab sessions” (Biomedical Science student, Rolfe, 2009). These resources were then embedded within the timetable with students working through workbooks prior to entering the lab. Soon, students were creating video of their own laboratory work and sharing these either informally with each other through social media, or as part of the project website. The laboratory technical teams also created resources in areas they thought students particularly struggled with. One of the benefits cited by staff was they needed to spend less time repeating basic instructions as students had an overview of the fundamental skills.

Other applications of open education included students accessing resources by QR codes at different workstations to introduce them to different techniques, which helped to cater for large student numbers in the lab in a more effective way. Students were also engaged in producing multiple-choice assessment questions, later shared as OERs accompanying resources on the project website.

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Longer term, open education led to changes to the learning culture itself, with students taking control and implementing their own ideas, such as photographing histology images using iPhones for sharing as OER on the Google service Picasa, and later a Facebook discussion group. Some of the lasting impact of this work is the cross-university interest it generated – for example technology and arts students becoming interested in science projects, and the OER being available globally to support informal and formal learning, providing new insights and perspectives for students (Rolfe, 2016).

As more evidence is gathered as to the benefits and uses of OER and open practices, a new theoretical basis for open practical pedagogies may emerge. What is important is that we continue to openly share our case studies of teaching practice to build a fuller picture. That way, larger communities of teachers can grow and benefit:

“It has changed my practice in terms of whenever I’m doing anything I think how could this be an OER or how could it supplement what I’m doing”. (Microbiology lecturer).


Read the full-length version of this article in our magazine, Physiology News.

References

Coward, K., and Gray, J. V., 2014. Audit of Practical Work Undertaken Accessed 12 May 2017].

Rolfe, V., 2009. Development of a Virtual Analytical Laboratory (VAL) multimedia resource to support student transition to laboratory science at university. HEA Bioscience Case Study. pp. 1-5.

Rolfe, V., 2016.  Web Strategies for the Curation and Discovery of Open Educational Resources. Open Praxis, 8(4). [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wiley, D., 2014. The Access Compromise and the 5th R. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].

Wilson, J., Adams, D. J. and Arkle, S., 2008. 1st Year Practicals–their role in developing future Bioscientists. Leeds, the Higher education Academy Centre for Bioscience. [online] [Accessed 12 May 2017].