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Online Lab

Answering the $1 million dollar question

A Pitt flag, adorning the wall of a freshman dorm room in Tower A, ripples in the wind caused by a whirling window fan. Clothes and books are strewn everywhere, creating a sort of maze that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to maneuver safely from one side to the other.

A Pitt freshman sits cross-legged, oblivious to the mess. She is immersed in her chemistry book, struggling with the concept of mass spectrometry, which is a way to identify chemical compounds through their specific molecular properties. Molecules are broken down into smaller pieces, and their weight is measured using magnetic and electric fields. Based on the weight of the fragments and other properties of the molecule, the compound can be identified.

She sighs. If only she had a spectrometer in her room. But a real spectrometer costs at least $1 million and is primarily used for faculty research. The chance of getting her freshman hands on one is very slim. Breaking into the Chevron Science Center to try out the mass spectrometer might benefit her education, but it would give her a criminal record, too.

She sighs again, curses her textbook and her overall inability to comprehend Chem. I. Loosening her dark hair from a carelessly made ponytail, she examines a strand and wonders about her assignment—how, by using mass spectrometry, someone can detect traces of cocaine in hair.

She won’t have to wonder anymore, thanks to Joseph Grabowski, an associate professor of physical organic chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, and Mark Bier, director of the Center for Molecular Analysis at Carnegie Mellon University. Their development of the Virtual Mass Spectrometry Lab (VMSL) will connect mass spectrometry in the textbook with an online version of a mass spectrometer.

So, instead of just reading about how a mass spectrometer is used for hair analysis, this freshman can log onto the VMSL Web site and click on the Cocaine in Hair case. This experiment on the Web site will let her figure out—by picking the correct mass spectrometer and configuring it in the right way—whether or not a washed hair sample has traces of cocaine in it. By using the VMSL, she can test the strand of hair for cocaine in a fraction of the time that she would need with a real mass spectrometer, and she doesn’t have to worry about damaging the expensive instrument, either.

Before VMSL, mass spectrometry was taught more extensively in upper-level undergraduate chemistry classes, without the usual accompanying lab. Now, with the assistance of the VMSL, introductory classes will have the chance for more in-depth learning and exploring of mass spectrometry.

Ultimately, there will be about 12 case studies on the VMSL Web site. Each of the existing case studies is stand-alone, geared toward different levels of chemistry students and labeled as such on the Web site, which became operational last fall.

Not just anyone can use VMSL. The freshman’s roommate, who is majoring in art history, would get pretty lost on the site. The Web site was designed as a lab—therefore, she would need to attend the lecture for the lab just like a chemistry student.

"It’s the laboratory. It’s not the background, it’s not the preparation material. And that’s by design, because we tried to create something that people can use in a lot of different ways, not take you from step A to step B to step C," explains Grabowski.

He and Bier expect that colleges and universities worldwide will start using VMSL as a teaching aid. "Rather than write a textbook for a course, what we’ve written is a virtual instrument that can be used in many courses, so in the perfect world, this tool would be used in a physics lab, biology lab, chemistry lab, and in multiple courses among chemistry, biology, and physics," says Grabowski. —Ellenmarie Agnew



Sing Along

Education with a beat

Thirteen-year-old middle school students are in the classroom jamming along on recorders to the airy Revolutionary War-era "Yankee Doodle." It sounds awful at first, but gets better by the time first period ends.

They dart over to history. There, they learn about the battles where British soldiers sang "Yankee Doodle" to mock the colonists’ backwoods army, and how the rebels made it their own fight song after several of their victories, possibly performing it at General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Va. The teacher gives them copies of 1700s "broadsides," which were lyric sheets colonists bought for a penny each.

Over in language arts class, it’s parody time. One back-of-the-room student, who has struggled to care all year, hears a distant fife and drum corps in his head and begins to scratch out a few words. To the same tune, he writes a hilarious parody of the school’s recent student council election (which many say was rigged). When his version is read aloud, classmates cry the 1700s cheer, "Huzzah!"

A knock at the door of Pitt’s Center for American Music stirs Professor Deane Root from his daydream. He has to give an interview about Voices Across Time, his project that will infuse English and social studies classes with American music—a creative new approach to education for middle and high schools.

You can’t blame Root for envisioning the potential classroom impact. He and his team have been immersed in this project for the past eight years. Voices Across Time is a treasury of 155 painstakingly chosen American songs with recordings and lesson guides spanning Colonial music to rap. It has song lyrics; copies of source documents (like broadsides); scholarly writings about each song’s origin and historical setting; and suggestions for student activities like design a record cover that reflects the same philosophies as this song.

Root’s dream of teaching through music is not far from reality. Later this year, 1,000 copies of the first edition of Voices Across Time are scheduled for printing and distribution. And this summer, 25 school teachers will visit Pitt for a five-week teaching institute based on the ideas of Voices Across Time. Graduates of the institute are expected to spread the word about Voices Across Time across the country. It’s a message not currently being heard.

The American educational system sets music aside, separating it from the "academic" classes, says Root. This is despite the pioneering writings of Harvard "multiple intelligences" researcher Howard Gardner, who discovered that the human brain forms ideas and creates memory through music that’s different (and an enhancement) from the way it understands words and pictures.

The program’s focus on America’s musical heritage shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Root. He is the former president of the scholarly Society for American Music, and Voices Across Time is one of the society’s adopted projects.

Root—who also directs Pitt’s Center for American Music, which is part of the University Library System and who chairs the Department of Music—started Voices Across Time in 1995. There were few American music packages teachers could use to excite students. Time-Life Books and other companies make wonderful recordings of Civil War brass bands, but these satisfy the aims of history buffs and scholars, not teachers, Root says. So he went to the experts: teachers. They suggested what techniques, activities, and information would help them add music to their classes and engage students who don’t learn as well through reading, lecture, and discussion.

Then came the hard part: finding the songs. The recordings had to be high-quality and resonate with the 12- to 17-year-old crowd. The music also had to be authentic to the time of its composition. For 1800s songs, remakes with electric guitars were out. For the spiritual "Let Us Break Bread Together," Root’s team couldn’t find any authentic recordings, so they commissioned specialists who recreated the sounds of slaves singing on plantations. Root listened to 15 versions of the Civil War song "Marching Through Georgia" before finding one worthy of inclusion.

He hopes to eventually publish and distribute 20,000 copies of Voices Across Time. That number may one day be within reach. Already, teacher response has been fervent. Root and his team have presented Voices Across Time at teacher seminars across the country, and, afterward, teachers come to him with checkbooks open. Some 100 teachers from nearly 70 school districts in a dozen states are interested. That number will likely rise after this summer’s institute at Pitt.

"It’s the older teachers who are most excited about this because they’ve been looking for it all their lives," says Root. —Jonathan Szish



Play List

Some songs in Voices Across Time:

"Big Yellow Taxi," by Joni Mitchell, 1970, an environmental song protesting the blacktopping of America.

"Chocolate City," Parliament, 1975, a funk song describing Washington, D.C., in which the singer, George Clinton, dreams of an all-Black government for the capital city. The song names Richard Pryor, Aretha Franklin, and other Black performers to high-level government posts.

"Go Down Moses," a traditional spiritual that honored Nat Turner’s slave revolt in 1831 and made him into a Moses-like figure among American slaves.

"I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag," by Country Joe and the Fish, 1965, a satirical song against the Vietnam War.

"The Liberty Song," words by John Dickinson, 1758. Its message is that united we stand, divided we fall. It was America’s anthem before the nation was formed.

"Marching Through Georgia," by Henry Clay Work, 1864, a song depicting Northern General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia during the Civil War.

"New England’s Annoyances," anonymous, 1642, described as America’s first folk song. It’s a laundry list of the colonists’ tribulations, but the song ends with the realization that America is still better than England.

"No Irish Need Apply," by John F. Poole, 1862, a song lamenting job discrimination against Irish immigrants.

"Rosie The Riveter," by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, 1942, about women working in munitions plants while the men were off fighting World War II. The song turned the women workers into pop culture heroes.


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