Experiential Video Stories Teach Human Biology

Experiential Video Stories Teach Human Biology

Instructor: Anne Friedlander and Corey Dysick
Department/School: Program in Human Biology
Course: EP 101 (MOOC), HB135 (Stanford Exercise Physiology)
Audience: 1) MOOC - Professionals and students of all ages from around the world who are interested in learning about how their bodies adapt to the stresses of the world (Environmental Physiology)  2) HB135 - Stanford students who are learning about Environmental Physiology as part of a larger Exercise Physiology class.

Goals of Teaching and Learning Approach:

Our intention was to create an educational experience that went beyond just conveying information. Students watched video stories about physiology from across the country in which the instructors sacrificed their bodies for the good of science, subjecting themselves to stressors like high altitude chambers, cold tubs, aging impairments and skydiving.  By showing an experiential video, students were encouraged to identify with the characters.  As the story unfolded, problems were introduced and solutions proposed in a  real-world context.  The course also included the opportunity to hear from top scientists and adventurers in the field. Video travel locations included Stanford, Harvard, MIT, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Pikes Peak, Las Vegas, Livermore California and Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Throughout the course, we sought to present rigorous scientific content in an entertaining format to increase retention, comprehension, and to generate a greater understanding of the scientific method.  Abstract scientific concepts were represented more concretely and brought to life for the students. It also provided a way to illustrate exotic environments in the classroom, so students could learn how their bodies adapt to these environments even if they have never experienced them personally.

The Story:

Corey stumbled into Dr. Friedlander's Exercise Physiology class early in his college career. Eventually becoming her teaching assistant, the two joined forces to discover new and exciting ways to teach physiology to Stanford students. Together they decided that the best way for Corey to really understand the material was to experience a series of diverse physiologic stressors first hand. What resulted was a series of wild and crazy “Where’s Corey Now?” adventures captured on video that provide a novel approach to teaching the fundamentals of environmental physiology.


We created content-specific, story videos and lectures designed to enhance learning and engagement  around 6 topic areas that included cold, heat, altitude, stress, aging and variable pressure. Each content area started with a humorous story video that illustrated physiologic changes that left the viewer wondering why certain things happened.  That curiosity then lead viewers into lectures that answered the questions and explained the underlying physiology.  Each topic was then concluded with several interviews with top researchers and adventures in the field to add further enrichment and depth to the material. Online quizzes and experiential exercises rounded out each topic area. With the assistance of Karin Forssell in the Graduate School of Education, we performed A/B testing on the efficacy of the stories on engagement as well as several other pedagogical questions surrounding online learning.

An example of one of the story videos is included below.  In this sample video, Corey spends a day exploring Boston in the restrictive age-mimicking AGNES suit developed by the MIT AgeLab to explore the physical impairments associated with aging.

Physiology of Aging.  See story video here

In-class Strategies:

For the Stanford version of the class, utilizing the online story and lecture videos as assigned homework opened up normal lecture periods for alternative activities. We found that these activities required creativity and time to prepare, but were effective as teaching experiences and provided a second opportunity for the students to interact with the course material.  An example of an in-class activity associated with the Aging section is included below.  Students were able to experience some of the deficits imparted by the AGNES suit themselves through a variety of props like vaseline covered glasses, beans in their shoes, taped fingers (to mimic arthritis), ear plugs, etc.  Afterwards, students were given a series of questions to discuss amongst themselves and comments from the students after class indicated increased empathy for older adults with physical impairments.  Getting young students to appreciate the challenges associated with aging is a victory!

Online or out-of-class strategies:    

Our primary focus was on increasing engagement and retention in the learning process through humorous storytelling videos and we were successful in doing so. The story videos were carefully crafted to introduce relevant, concrete illustrations of physiology that were supported by more traditional videotaped lecture material filmed in a studio, green-screen environment. Check for understanding questions, quizzes and at-home exercises evaluated and further explored the material in the lectures.

Snapshots of online and in-class experiences:


Lessons learned:

  • Storytelling is an effective way to create engaging online content.  Students enjoyed learning the physiology associated with the stories.

  • Replacing standard lecture time with experiential activities initially requires additional time, effort and creativity, but does appear to enhance the educational process.

  • Finding ways to evaluate the learning of complex ideas purely online remains challenging.

  • There is a surprising amount of immediate feedback from students online, so adjustments, elaboration and corrections can be made in real-time throughout the class

  • Moving to an online format forces professors to re-evaluate their content and teaching methods which is good for the overall teaching process both online and in the Stanford classes.  

  • Teaching an international MOOC enhances Stanford learning by giving the instructors an international perspective that can be brought home to subsequent Stanford classes.

About the teaching team:

Support for this project came from the Stanford Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning (VPTL), the Dean of Humanities and Sciences, and the Program in Human Biology.  

photo of Dr. Anne Friedlander

Anne L. Friedlander, PhD, Instructor

The heart and soul of the team, Anne has been teaching in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University since 1997. Dr. Friedlander has broad research experience in the areas of metabolism, environmental physiology, and using physical activity to promote healthy aging. Anne thrives on finding new ways to illustrate the amazing capacity of the human body and to awaken the passion for learning in her students. This course is a product of her dedication to physiology, joy of teaching and love of the outdoors. Dr. Friedlander received a BA in Biology from Wesleyan University, a Masters and PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of California, Berkeley, and conducted her post-doctoral training in the Division of Endocrinology, Geriatrics and Metabolism at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

photo of Corey Dysick

Corey Dysick, BA, Secondary Instructor and Teaching Assistant

Aspiring physiologist and glorified guinea pig. Corey has loved the journey of creating stories about science, and hopes his experience will help students fall in love with physiology. Corey was the utility player on the EnvPhyz team, involved in content creation, storytelling, video editing, interfacing with EnvPhyz guests, and dreaming of the next big story to tell about science. A graduate of Stanford University, he will be attending graduate school to further pursue his passion for physiology and education.

Carlos Seligo, PhD, Academic Technology Specialist

As videographer and editor, Carlos was responsible for translating Anne and Corey's adventures into video stories. Carlos came to Stanford in 1997 as a postdoc and has been here ever since. His diverse set of talents has given the EnvPhyz team the technological boost they desperately needed. Wild, crazy, and excellent, Carlos is passionate about using technology to help students learn.

Wes Choy, MS, Course Producer

Our video production guru. Master of lighting, audio, and the team's most emotionally stable member. Without Wes, the videos would be grainy, shaky, and dark. Formerly a media producer at the Yale University broadcast and media center, Wes saw the light and made his way over to the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning at Stanford where he serves as the Production Operations Manager. Thanks to Wes, who joined us after our Cold and Heat videos, we now have videos of excellent quality.

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about Dr. Friedlander and Corey's approach see the blog post:  "MOOC Materials Coming to a Classroom Near You"