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Inspiration Information

A free digital resource brings students up close with leading professionals across a variety of fields to help them see the real-world relevance of their studies.

Inspiration Information

PICK AND CHOOSE The Open
Source Teaching Project website
includes an assignment blog where
teachers can go to find activities
based on interviews conducted for
the project.

WHEN MICHELLE VILLARREAL, who teaches gifted classes at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, TN, and at Eagleville School in Eagleville, TN, wanted to give her students some insight into how they could parlay their love of science into a career, she had them listen to an interview of Jeffrey Bluestone, director of the Diabetes Center and the Immune Tolerance Network at the University of California- San Francisco.

"When we got to the part in Bluestone's interview where he talks-- almost offhandedly-- about creating a genetically altered mouse, the look on the students' faces was priceless," says Villarreal. "Many of them are interested in pursuing careers in the medical field, but few had thought of research as an exciting option."

Villarreal has access to the Bluestone interview and several others like it through the Open Source Teaching Project, a Tennessee-based program that helps students make real-life connections to academic content. The program sends interviewers to speak faceto- face with experts in a range of fields who share their passion for their work, explain what they do on a daily basis, and suggest steps students can take to achieve similar careers. The interviews are then posted online, free for anyone to access, accompanied by teacher resources, including lesson plans and blogs.

Villarreal began using the digitally archived interviews through her participation in a pilot program that began in January in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, a result of a partnership between the district, the Open Source Teaching Project, and the Metro Area Nashville Chamber of Commerce. The program hopes to use the interviews to prepare students for the future by integrating the work experiences of leading Nashville professionals into digital learning opportunities for students and teachers. "It's a fantastic, much-needed resource," says Villarreal.

Making the Connection

The Open Source Teaching Project is run by the nonprofit Sage Leadership Partners. The project came about, says Mary Catherine Sevier, the organization's president, partly in response to concerns she and her husband, David, a fellow teacher and one of the project's co-founders, had about the gifted curriculum they were teaching, which didn't seem to be motivating students. "These were bright, bright students, but completely unengaged," she recalls. "They were really struggling to see the relevance of reading a particular story or learning a particular critical-thinking skill.

"Then, David said, 'What if you could show them how a Nobel laureate uses that skill? What if you could show them how another Nobel laureate makes his living writing, and have that person talk about that?'"

Sevier says her husband began kicking around the idea with a colleague at the Tennessee Department of Education, Art Fuller, and the two men quickly realized that the Nashville area, with institutions such as Vanderbilt University nearby, had plenty of Nobel Prize winners and other scholars within easy reach. Fuller contacted one, Peter Doherty, a cancer researcher at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and asked for 30 minutes of his time for an interview that would be digitally archived for free use on the internet. "He said that sounded like fun," Sevier recalls."And it grew from there."

Since the project began three years ago, about 65 people have been interviewed and another 140 or so are lined up. Among them are seven Nobel laureates, 34 MacArthur "genius award" fellows, and 125 Guggenheim fellows representing more than 70 universities. And the program is now drawing subjects from far beyond its home base. In addition to top scholars, interviewees have included a United Nations ambassador, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an admissions officer at Harvard University, and an assistant to the manager of the San Diego Padres major league baseball team.

Before the interviews are uploaded to the Open Source Teaching Project website, they're edited, broken into topic segments, and meta-tagged. Due to technological limitations experienced by some schools, the interviews are audio only, says Sevier. "That is a function of bandwidth right now," she explains. "In this area of the country, and perhaps in other areas of the country, school systems are not blessed with crackerjack computer technology in every single school and every single classroom."

"For students to actually hear an interview with someone who is tops in the field they are interested in, and to find out what their background is and how they got into the job and what their work entails-- I think that's invaluable."

In order to provide a visual component, Open Source Teaching Project co-founder Fuller, also the organization's chairman, has been putting together introductory videos using still photos that are relevant to each interviewee. A beta video library page was released earlier this year and quickly became the most popular page on the site. "Our goal is to have a comprehensive selection of video vignettes for each of our interview tracks, linked by keyword themes and interdisciplinary connections," Fuller says.

Visions of the Future

Currently, the Open Source Teaching Project has college students interview most subjects, but thanks to a grant from State Farm, juniors and seniors in teacher Jeannie Cain's gifted classes at Siegel High School, part of Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee, will begin to conduct interviews starting this fall. A portion of the grant money will go toward the purchase of digital recorders, as well as support training the students in the use of the recorders and teaching them interviewing skills. Also coming in the fall courtesy of the grant, the Open Source Teaching Project team will work with the district to set up sites within the online community Ning where teachers and students can go to have discussions about the interviews, including exchanging reviews and feedback, and where Cain's students' interviews will be edited and posted. "In short, we'll assist teachers and students in applying Web 2.0 tools to the classroom," says Fuller.

Cain is participating with Villarreal in the pilot program that began in January. The first interview she played for her students, of Marshall Brain, creator of HowStuffWorks.com, was a hit. "Students really believe that the majority of what they would do in their job is what they see on TV," says Cain. "For students to actually hear an interview with someone who is tops in the field they are interested in, and to find out what their background is and how they got into the job and what their work entails-- I think that that's invaluable."

For students in grades 10 through 12 who are taking her twice-monthly course on preparing for college, Cain plays interviews with college admissions officers. "It's one thing to hear it from me and one thing to hear it from their parent-- and it's another thing to hear from an admissions counselor at an Ivy League school," she says.

Villarreal has also played an interview from the dean of admissions at Stanford University for her juniors to help them prepare for the college application process. "The interview gave the students an understanding of how admissions committees operate and what they are looking for," she says. "Shortly after [listening to the interview], we began writing résumés, and I saw students include information that the dean had specifically mentioned as desirable in a prospective student."

The interviews with admissions officers are part of the project's expanding goal of making college more accessible to students. College Access Interviews, a resource containing interviews with college students about college life and the application process, is currently in the beta stage on the project's website. "Like anything, [the Open Source Teaching Project] is constantly changing," says Sevier. "We're constantly thinking of other ways we'd like to deepen or broaden it."

Lorna Collier is a freelance writer based in Belvidere, IL.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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