Two Duke students publish Space Medicine, the first student-created Coursera course to date

After tremendous success as a home course and online learning experience, Space Medicine has become the first student-created, officially published Coursera course to date, with over a thousand students already registered to get started.

Dominic Tanzillo and Nicholas Saba, both Trinity ’21, received positive feedback from students in their original course. The six-week program consisted of pre-recorded video lectures and a number of live components to simulate the interconnectedness of a classroom.

“We would have one live session each week, usually a guest lecturer, but other times a meet and greet or a case study discussion,” explains Saba. “We had students from all over the world, created a LinkedIn group… once it launched, it was pretty hands-off.”

“We got feedback from people as young as high school students to as experienced as full aerospace doctors,” Tanzillo added. “A graduate student from East India got up at 6am every day to participate in the live sessions. Another student of the [United Kingdom] would stay up late with a friend to watch and discuss the lectures.”

The published Coursera course retains much of the original program structure, including a similar mix of pre-recorded lectures with additional guest components. It is “framed around a real-world medical case in which students examine some of the most anticipated challenges for humans living in space for extended periods of time, and weigh possible solutions,” said team leader Megan Lancaster.

Registered students also get access to a course-specific Discord channel, complete with live chat rooms and areas to ask questions. Saba described the channel as a “stepping stone to a larger community” as it will allow students to collaborate and discuss the course as they progress.

Obviously, moving from an in-house course to one with official Coursera certification was a team effort.

Tanzillo first spoke with Leonard White, director of undergraduate studies of psychology and neuroscience and creator of Medical Neuroscience, one of the most popular Coursera courses. White pointed Tanzillo to Duke Learning Innovation, where Lancaster, a senior learning experience designer, would serve as team leader in guiding the Space Medicine crew to publication.

“From January 2021 to July 2021, our Space Medicine project team would meet weekly via Zoom to plan course design,” Lancaster wrote. “[Tanzillo and Saba] have this impressive ability to make complex concepts in science and medicine accessible and entertaining to a wide audience. With each script, our team worked to bring their vision to life by designing animations, graphics and planning studios, and on-location recording sessions.”

According to Lancaster, all the resources needed to design this course were provided free of charge by Duke Learning Innovation. The team, made up of Lancaster, Saba, Tanzillo, Media Designer Nick Janes, Media Producer Michael Blair and Learning Designer Willie Williamson, each worked approximately ten hours a week on the project.

Saba and Tanzillo have high hopes for the future of Space Medicine, and the pair have been in touch with several groups to discuss possible extensions to their course. Sophomore Brandon Francis and junior Eden Deng are leading the home course at Duke this spring, and similar programs may appear on other college campuses.

“The chief of NASA’s biomedical research division is reviewing the course to see if they can get approval and then be sent to their internal mailing list,” Tanzillo said. “We also gave the teaching materials to students from [the University of Colorado-Boulder] and [North Carolina State University] so they can learn life [house course] version. We want to remove some barriers and make learning easy.”

Saba echoed his fellow teacher’s last sense that the legacy of their course flies far beyond space medicine itself; the official Coursera program has opened the door for a new generation of student instructors and a new era of collaboration.

“We’re excited to get others excited, and we hope other people will do things like this in space medicine or whatever they’re passionate about. We’ve paved the way for students to take into their own hands what they’re interested in take it and show it off.”


Gautam Sirdeshmukh

Gautam Sirdeshmukh is a Trinity junior and the health and science news editor of the 117th volume of The Chronicle.

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