Walter Leal knows insect physiology, and he's spreading that knowledge to researchers worldwide -- thanks to distance education efforts at UC Davis.
While oceans and miles would keep faculty members like Leal and students apart only a few years ago, now technology can extend the classroom across continents and time zones, bringing them together.
Last April, Leal, an entomology professor, hooked up some computers, ran some software and proceeded to conduct a transatlantic seminar with more than 25 French graduate students. The project was made possible through an agreement of cooperation between UC Davis' Outreach and International Programs, the Department of Entomology and the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon in France.
In the online discussion, Leal explained aspects of the molecular basis of pheromone perception and details about olfaction in insects. Frederic Marion-Poll, a zoology professor at the Institut National Agronomique served as the organizer at the European end.
"The French students and their instructors welcomed the chance to learn more about the chemical ecology of insects," Leal said. "It went very well as both sides of the classroom prepared ahead of time."
While students were reticent to ask Leal questions in English after his presentation, they peppered him with inquiries in French. That's where Marion-Poll came in handy -- Leal, a native of Brazil, doesn't speak French, so Marion-Poll served as translator.
"Walter proposed to answer questions, and after a few moments of hesitation, they started to interact with Walter, asking questions directly or with the help of us for translation," Marion-Poll said.
The group also overcame a significant time difference. From his office in 37 Briggs Hall, Leal began his lecture at 8 a.m. Pacific Coast time, and a few minutes before 5 p.m. in France students packed a seminar room at Institut. It took a bit of ingenuity on Leal's part to set up the computer technology to make the two-hour seminar possible. Instead of a low-tech chatroom discussion, he and participants wanted a seminar based on real-time audio and visual capabilities.
Using computers outfitted with Net-Meeting software to carry audio and vis-uals and PowerPoint slide projections, Leal put a human face on the discussion.
Despite language, distance and cultural barriers and sophisticated technology, the most human of all factors -- attention span -- determined the seminar's outcome. Marion-Poll said he was "amazed" to see how the students exhibited growing interest in Leal's subject as the seminar progressed.
"It's a great asset for teaching," said Marion-Poll, "to be able to talk about a specific topic and then provide the students the opportunity to meet one of the best specialists in the world on that topic. It makes things much more real and accurate. For myself, it was also a great opportunity to receive scientific information by somebody like Walter in a more condensed form -- this was very different than reading a scientific paper or attending a seminar at a scientific meeting."
Leal has an increasingly worldwide audience for his research these days.
Just last year he and colleagues in Switzerland, including the 2002 Nobel Prize laureate in chemitry, Kurt WÃ¼thrich, released research findings describing a key step in insects' sense of smell. The discovery could lead to insecticides that stop insects from communicating through chemical signals. Using nuclear magnetic resonance, the researchers showed how a protein in an insect's antenna picks up chemical signals called pheromones, then changes its shape to put them precisely onto sensitive nerve endings.
Leal earned his undergraduate degree in Brazil and his graduate degrees in Japan. He says the opportunity to teach at UC Davis prompted him to quit his tenured position in Japan.
Marion-Poll is encouraged about future distance education projects. "We can learn a lot from such seminars, both from the seminar itself and from the questions asked afterward."
Leal conducted another online seminar with students in Brazil last August.
Tech-driven education grows
Distance education efforts come in all shapes and sizes, from ones like Leal's conducted through the auspices of Outreach and International Programs to online courses increasingly offered through Summer Sessions throughout UC.
With a swell of students graduating from California's high schools, UC has made significant efforts to increase both Summer Sessions enrollments and course offerings. One strategy for futher broadening access is to use technology to offer courses at a distance to students who are unable to be on a UC campus.
This summer, UC Santa Barbara and Davis are offering a total of more than a dozen videoconferenced courses, and Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis are all offering at least one online course.
UC Davis is offering six courses to the fledging UC Merced campus, which has learning centers in Merced, Bakersfield and Fresno. Exams are administered at the remote sites, and proctored by student teaching assistants and staff. These courses, which are simultaneously taken in person by UC Davis students, provide Central Valley students with the opportunity to gain UC credit before UC Merced opens.
Sometimes broadcasting courses can benefit on-campus students as well.
Last summer UC Davis offered Nutrition 10, a course that meets many majors' requirements and is taught by a popular instructor Liz Applegate. Because demand for the course turned out to be greater than expected, the classroom that had been reserved was not big enough, said John Azevedo, an Information and Educational Technology videoconferencing manager. So, Azevedo, who was already planning to broadcast the course to the three UC Merced learning centers, split the signal from the classroom in which Applegate and 165 students were located and carried it to another classroom on campus that accommodated an additional 75 Davis students. In total, 300 students from five locations took the course.
Universities have much to gain from advances in, and strategic adoption of, information technology, said John Bruno, vice provost for IET. "In the area of instruction, universities are finding ways to harness the Web and software applications to enhance their communication with students," he said, noting: "Increasingly, students expect their instructors to be nearly continuously available, particularly via email, chat rooms or electronic bulletin boards."
For more information about using technology in the classroom, see the Teaching Resources Center Web page at http://trc.ucdavis.edu/trc/.
Paula Murphy, managing editor for UC's Teaching Learning and Technology Center Web site, contributed to this story.