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.
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
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-
"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
"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,"
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
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.