Rookie authors are entitled to crow

January 26, 2001

Students at Dalhousie University in Canada lacked an adequate textbook, so they wrote one themselves.

When professor Stephen Cheung began teaching his course, he had no textbook. By the time his fourth-year students walked out of the last class of environmental impact on human physiology last December, they had added a new nine-chapter CD-Rom to their library. Uncompensable Heat Stress: Thermophysiology and Ergonomics is a peer-reviewed monograph that brings together the latest research on the effects of heat stress on the human body. It is written by students at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Without a comprehensive textbook on environmental physiology available, Cheung never thought about complaining to a publishing house or his academic society. Instead, the professor used the barrier as an opportunity to test a teaching theory that inspired him as a student during a 1994 stint at the International Space University. He and his colleagues gathered together material for two books they collectively produced.

Cheung was not only inspired by the innovation of having students write their own textbook, but by the idea that the material could later serve as an important reference. His ISU books, one of which focused on innovative robotic space exploration projects, have been used by employees of Boeing, Lockheed and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It did not just sit in a drawer," Cheung drily comments.

In front of a morning class of fewer than a dozen fellow students, Zsolt Toth is going through a projected PowerPoint review of his chapter on heat stress on athletes. He offers his findings with the confidence of a scholar at an international conference. He takes the class through the various theories about why athletes at the peak of their training seem temporarily to weaken their immune systems.

He cites several papers, one looking at marathon runners and upper respiratory tract infections; another, a controlled study of feverish subjects and their suppressed motivation. Students later ask him questions, curious about other research he found on the subject. At the end of the semester, this presentation will turn into a full chapter on the subject.

The book, edited by the professor and written and sub-edited by the students, could eventually serve as a textbook detailing the present state of knowledge in one area of environmental physiology. He will also point scholars to research trends and gaps. Cheung's long-term plan is eventually to have one publishable book, comprising perhaps four years of courses.

When Cheung's former student Angela McPhee was working last year on her chapter for a book that the class was writing about altitude and its effects on humans, she did not treat it like an average class assignment.

"I made a point to go back over it to check that I understood it clearly," she says of the chapter she wrote on decompression sickness.

The textbook part of the course includes a class presentation, with questions and four peers submitting written criticisms on a chapter draft.

Because of those rigours, she says she now understands the subject really well. "It was not just some paper I would hand in and forget about."

When Cheung first presented his proposal for this three-credit (one semester) course to Dalhousie's School of Health and Human Performance, aside from pointing out the kinesiology department's need for a course focusing on the impact of environmental stressors on human performance, he wrote of the benefits the class will gain by producing a book.

"[This course will help] develop skills of critical analysis and research design through the in-depth analysis of current research and the preparation of an up-to-date textbook on the field of environmental physiology."

From what he has seen, teaching assistant Leo Thornley believes that the course gives students much more independence than most other classes, as they defend their work to the editors and sub-editors. After their morning presentations, the students were quick to offer positive testimonials on the course. One student says that she has a clearer view of what is involved in submitting peer-review papers.

Cheung admits that the course involves "an enormous workload" on his part, even with a maximum of 15 students. There is the feedback to each student, reviewing of drafts, working with the paperless book's technology, while still presenting the course's requisite exam, assignments and reading lists.

But the benefits he sees from students participating in this made-in-class publication are numerous. "There is no environmental physiology textbook. In four years, all these students will have created their own body of knowledge and not some regurgitation of my lectures."

The class is one that not only provides lasting literature for those enrolled, but prepares them for the real world of science publishing. The book might also open an interesting chapter on how students retain new information.

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