Mineralogist’s online course on gems is a campus first

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

21 August 2002 | The campus is offering its first course taught solely through the web. And it’s a gem.

“Gems and Gem Materials,” an undergraduate class to be taught by Jill Banfield, a professor of earth and planetary sciences, will get a trial run this fall as cautious faculty members wait to hear what students think.

One of the 14 students who tried the course this summer couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it.

“The course was tremendous,” says Sally Smith, a returning student who expects to earn her bachelor’s degree this fall at the age of 50. “I’ve taken quite a few online courses, and the quality of the information provided on the web was much higher at Cal. It was a very rich experience.”

Offered by the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences as EPS 2, the course is geared toward non-science majors wanting to satisfy their physical sciences requirement. All the materials, from text and video demonstrations to quizzes, are accessible through the web at Even the public can use the course materials.

Banfield and her teaching assistant do offer face time to students during office hours. And class members must show up for midterm and final exams. But the primary interaction between student and teacher is via e-mail.

Banfield found the course to be a great success at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she developed it in 1995 and wound up teaching about 400 students each semester. She even taught it for two years from Japan during a sabbatical. Since her move to Berkeley last year, she has planned to offer a similar course.

“I’m trying to teach students some science by capturing their interest in the beauty of gems and playing off the commercial interest in them,” says Banfield, a mineralogist who studies the role microbes play in the distribution of minerals in the Earth’s crust. “Everyone buys at least one in their lifetime, and this course can help them interpret what they are buying and shows them the amazing variety of gems. There are lots of gemstones besides diamonds.”

UC Extension offers courses and even certificates through the Internet without class meetings, and various Berkeley courses have major online components. But until now, none had jettisoned the lecture entirely. One of the most successful Internet courses on campus, Digital Chem 1A, streams lectures through the web and places all course materials online, but interactive in-class lectures remain a critical component.
“We haven’t been very aggressive in promoting online courses, so Jill’s offer to teach the gems course caught us by surprise,” says Physics Professor Robert Jacobsen, who served on an Academic Senate subcommittee that reviewed the course materials and gave its approval for a test drive. “This is a wake-up call for many people.”

When Banfield first offered the course at Wisconsin, she provided a parallel lecture for students who wanted it. While perhaps 15 percent of the 400 students attended at the beginning of the course, attendance typically dropped to a dozen by the end.

“In this day and age, most students will not come to class if there is a reasonable option in the course,” Banfield says. “Online courses offer a good opportunity for students who are not scientifically inclined or want to learn at their own pace.”

According to Wren Montgomery, the graduate student who taught the course during Berkeley’s Summer Sessions, students had plenty of opportunities to meet with her.

“The genuinely interested students came to discussion sections and office hours,” she says, “or they sent e-mail messages.”

From Jacobsen’s perspective, there must be a good reason for moving away from the current model, where instructors typically devote one quarter of a course’s time to lectures and answering questions from students. That’s the model in the nearly 10,000 Berkeley classes offered this fall.

“My colleagues on the senate’s Committee on Courses of Instruction felt that any change like this has to increase the quality of instruction, not decrease it,” he says. “Jill showed us that the course [in the past] had excellent reviews, and she is putting real effort into evaluating student response to the course.”


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail