For Paul Nelson, frustration, not so much necessity, was the mother of invention. Like all bachelor of music candidates at Peabody, Nelson is required to take four semesters of French, German or Italian. The prospect of studying a foreign language, however, made Nelson wince, as he recalled the uphill battle he faced during his high school days. He thought there had to be a better and easier way to learn.
So, he went to his drawing board.
Nelson, who in a recent prior life was a computer programmer, set out to develop a testing program to help him learn Italian, specifically one that could drill him on vocabulary. His labor produced a tool that, in terms of his ability to retain words, yielded instant dividends. Not wanting to keep a good thing to himself, he put the program on his Web page for others at Peabody to use. The result was Beatle-esque: The hits (albeit of the Web variety) just kept on coming.
Laurie Detenbeck, an instructor of Italian at Peabody, took notice. She thought Nelson's "ingenious" client-based software would be a perfect fit for an inaugural Johns Hopkins grant program that encouraged faculty and students to develop digital technologies to enhance the classroom experience.
"Students here absolutely loved [Nelson's program]," Detenbeck said. "I thought Hopkins could fund this project of his and take it one step further, making it available to all the students and expanding it to include more complex grammar exercises."
In 2001, Detenbeck and Nelson applied for and received the grant from the Technology Fellowship Program. The result of their collaboration has been the development of an online, downloadable Italian workbook that grades students, telling them an answer is right or wrong, and also allows them to send the graded exercises directly to the instructor. The electronic workbook follows the textbook chapters and offers exercises such as filling in blanks with the correct verb form and translating sentences.
Detenbeck and Nelson are one of 16 faculty/student teams that are stretching the limits of instruction through the Technology Fellowship Program. Now in its second year, the program awards $5,000 to faculty and students from Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Peabody for projects that enhance pedagogy, facilitate access to course materials, encourage active learning and promote student/teacher collaboration. The faculty receive $1,000 for project conception, leadership and oversight; student fellows are given $4,000 for the actual implementation.
The 2002-2003 grant recipients will present their projects' results at the Technology Fellowship Symposium to be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on April 10 in 210 Hodson Hall, Homewood campus. Seen as a sort of teaching trade show, the event, which is open to the entire university community, allows the teams to demonstrate the projects and perhaps inspire others either to use some form of the technology or to apply for a fellowship of their own. The symposium's keynote speaker will be Burks Oakley, an instructional technology expert, who at 4 p.m. will discuss and illustrate recent developments in electronically enhanced education.
A sampling of this year's projects -- conducted between June 1, 2002, and May 1, 2003 -- include an interactive online database for the university's archaeological collection; a Web-based documentary on the famed Route 66 highway to augment the course The Automobile Age; and a robotics simulator that allows students to design and test their robot creations.
The program is funded by the Office of the Provost and overseen by the Center for Educational Resources, located in the MSE Library. In addition to the program's administration, CER staff offer instruction on technical skills, consult on idea formulation and feasibility and, if necessary, match interested faculty with student partners.
Candice Dalrymple, associate dean of university libraries for KSAS and CER director, said the program has been a complete success, a win-win for both students and faculty.
"The students receive invaluable experience in building and implementing digital resources, which they can use to help market themselves after they graduate," Dalrymple said, "while for faculty, the program provides the impetus to push the envelope of their teaching by providing them with funds and the technical labor that will allow them to make their concepts a reality."
Dalrymple said Detenbeck and Nelson's projects have been true Technology Fellowship success stories. The team has developed two projects so far and will be supported in a third next year.
"The whole concept could be easily imported here to the Romance Languages Department. In fact, [Detenbeck] will be giving a presentation on the Italian drill program to the Krieger language faculty later this month," she said. "This is a kind of cross-fertilization that we did not anticipate when we started this grant program."
Detenbeck said the new online workbook has garnered rave reviews from her students.
"To be honest, homework is sometimes drudgery for students, and many prefer to work on a computer than with a pencil and paper," she said. "With this online workbook, the students get instant feedback. They keep doing the exercise until they get it right, or just give up. And it cycles back through the ones they got wrong, asking them again in random order."
Detenbeck says that while the workbook has already been implemented in the course, she defines it as a work in progress.
"The first year it mostly provided just simple grammar drills. This year we expanded the drills a bit, refined the exercises and added the ability for the grades to be sent to me," she said. "Next year we want to add an audio component, where students can hear native speakers, and also add free-writing exercises. I love it; it offers me more class time for conversation and for oral drills, which we never seemed to have time for before."
Wilson J. Rugh, the E. J. Schaefer Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Whiting School, used his Technology Fellowship award to investigate a new technology called MathML, or mathematical markup language, a tagging language that is to mathematics what HTML is to English.
"Until now, the way math has been rendered on Web pages is a static image of the equation," said Rugh, whose student collaborator was Michael J. Ross, a senior computer engineering major. "With MathML, equations can be presented not just as an image but a symbol set that can drive and be driven by graphics such as graphs and charts," Rugh said. "The object is to tie the math with the visualization to help students understand the connection between the equation and what they see going on in a graphical presentation or animation."
Rugh has written a paper on his project and also placed demos of MathML on the Web site that he developed to accompany his Signals and Systems course: http://www.jhu.edu/~signals.
Cheryl Wagner, program coordinator for the Technology Fellowship Program, said she is "ecstatic" with the way the technologies have been applied to courses so far and predicts the good work will continue with the 12 recipients of 2003-2004 grants.
"In the future, we'd like to see more projects that can not only be integrated into other courses but spread across disciplines as well," she said. "So far we've had several projects that crossed over from humanities to engineering, or music to humanities. We would love to see more of that."
For more information on the Technology Fellowship program and to learn more about CER's offerings, go to www.cer.jhu.edu.