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Online Bioelectricity Course to Reach High School Teachers Nationwide

Duke is one of four American universities offering such free massive open online courses

Duke is one of four American universities and a handful of other educational organizations offering free massive open online courses – MOOCs – through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education recently announced by President Barack Obama. Teachers will receive continuing education credits through the courses, which will be offered through Coursera, the online platform Duke partnered with in 2012 to provide courses free on the Internet.

Of the 15 courses offered through Duke, one in particular may give teachers quite a shock—a quantitative approach to bioelectricity. Originating in the biomedical engineering department of the Pratt School of Engineering, the course presents the fundamental principles of how the electrical bits and pieces of the human body operate, including nerves, the heart and the brain.

The course teaches students how to think about electrically active tissue in terms of individual mechanisms, and how to analyze the mechanisms quantitatively as well as describe them qualitatively. It features many of the same examples used by Hodgkin and Huxley, who won the Nobel Prize for their experimental unraveling of the mechanisms of the nerve axon of the giant squid and their creation of a mathematical model of membranes and propagation to understand its function.  That work has been the foundational element of most subsequent understandings of electrically active tissue.

The course was developed in the summer of 2012 by Roger Barr, professor of biomedical engineering, with the help of Amy Kenyon and other staff members in Center for Instructional Technology, as well as Zahra Asgari, an engineering graduate student at the time. While it was not developed especially for high school teachers, it was understood that high school teachers would perhaps be among the students who would enroll, and indeed they have done so each time the online course has been given.

“Putting the course together was possible because of the strength of our biomedical engineering department, where a bioelectricity course has been taught for decades,” said Barr. “Teaching teachers has been one of Duke's institutional goals from the time it was organized as Trinity College, and I'm glad bioelectricity has been a course that has attracted the attention of some high school teachers. It is too good a subject to be hidden away as specialized secret knowledge.”