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Lehighs IMI helps create a streaming-video web class about glass

Himanshu Jain

Many of the amenities of modern life, says Himanshu Jain, would be unthinkable without glass.

Automobiles and skyscrapers rely on glass. So do airplanes and TVs, lasers and fiber optics, nuclear technologies and, of course, the Internet.

Glass’s singular properties are often taken for granted, says Jain, who directs Lehigh’s International Materials Institute for New Functionalities in Glass (IMI), which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Because it can transmit light signals for hundreds of miles, glass is vital to the optical fibers used in the Internet. And because it is easy to shape and does not dissolve or corrode, glass can safely store radioactive waste materials.

But specialists in glass science and engineering, and the students who wish to join their ranks, are small in number, says Jain. Few universities have more than one glass expert on their faculty, and many have none at all. Furthermore, glass research is expensive, and the variety of instruments needed to study all aspects of glass would exhaust the budget of any one university.

Students participating in the Characterization and Structure of Glass course.

For these reasons, Lehigh’s IMI recently joined with five other U.S. colleges and universities to offer an experimental, web-based course called Characterization and Structure of Glass. A total of 28 seniors and graduate students from seven schools signed up for the course, attending 90-minute lectures twice a week for 13 weeks by logging on to the Internet. Thirty more students audited the course.

The idea for the course was conceived by Jain and Kathleen Richardson, professor and director of the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Clemson University.

For their final assignment, the students formed nine long-distance teams and collaborated by e-mail, phone and videoconferencing to produce posters describing the results of their research projects.

On May 21, six of those teams presented their posters at the American Ceramics Society’s Glass and Optical Materials Division Meeting and 18th University Conference on Glass in Rochester, N.Y.

In the process, students from distant schools met each other and their professors in person for the first time.

Breeze software makes it possible

“We’re not replacing the classroom,” says Jain, who has studied glass for 25 years while collaborating with researchers in Germany, Greece, India, Japan, China, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. “We’re adding to it. There are too few students for a course like this one to be offered at each of the six schools. This is an inevitable problem for graduate education. As things become more and more specialized, we have fewer specialists to teach and to learn.”

Besides Lehigh, the other schools whose faculty members taught the glass course are Clemson University, the University of Michigan, Iowa State University, Coe College, and the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Students from the same schools and students from Penn State University enrolled in the course.

The diversity of schools enabled students to cover a variety of topics and learn about many of the lab techniques used to study glass. Thus, while Jain discussed X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS) and Extended X-ray Absorption Fine Structure (EXAFS), Coe’s Prof. Mario Affatigato explored the use of vibrational spectroscopy. Iowa State’s Prof. Steve Martin discussed nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as a tool for studying glass, while Alfred’s Prof. Alexis G. Clare lectured on Neutron and X-ray Scattering Studies of Glass.

Students attended class with help from Breeze, an educational software that allows teacher and students to see and hear each other. The site license at Clemson allowed Lehigh professor Eric Skaar to deliver the course to all participating schools from one location. Clemson’s Richardson even lectured from a laptop in a hotel while she was attending a conference.

During classes, students were able to send questions to the professors from their computers in real time.

The lectures are available on IMI’s website and can be viewed by clicking here.

“The course is now permanent,” says IMI associate director William R. Heffner. “All 26 lectures, plus more than 120 other related lectures, are archived on the IMI website. In effect, we have built a streaming-video web university for glass learning.”

Heffner said the long-distance collaborations will “introduce students to the challenges of modern collaborative research,” in which scientists and engineers work with colleagues from other disciplines, institutions and countries.

“The National Science Foundation and the international research community realize that we have to collaborate with people from countries around the world in order to be competitive in the global intellectual arena,” says Heffner. “The research is too complex, the facilities are too expensive and the expertise is too hard to recreate. We absolutely have to find ways to work together.”

Jain says the IMI and other participating schools plan to offer a second glass course next spring to students at a larger group of schools.

“This is a pedagogical solution to a widespread problem, and that is that there are too few students at too many places who wish to take specialized courses.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Thursday, June 28, 2007

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