University of North Florida Chemistry professor Joshua Melko, began using an online streaming service to connect with students. The result is a wacky, scientifically dense event that has more than 1,800 followers.
(TNS) — It's another Tuesday afternoon at 2, once again time for chemistry prof Joshua Melko to impart his scientific knowledge, along with a good bit of deadpan, nerd-heavy humor, to an audience that's grown far beyond the University of North Florida students who take his classes ("Roger, from Bolivia. Wow!").
It's the Melko Lab, a twice-weekly live-stream that Melko conducts on Twitch, an online streaming service. He intended it as a way to expand his office hours to students who couldn't be there in person, but it's kind of taken on a wacky, scientifically dense life its own, attracting hundreds of scientifically curious people from around the world and covering all manner of subjects, along with his coursework.
After a clip of the Melko Lab got 50,000 views on Reddit, an online discussion site, his office-hours experiment now has 1,800 followers, up from about 100 in January. And he's big, apparently, in Denmark.
Melko, 36, is a personable assistant professor of chemistry at UNF, with a wide self-deprecating streak and a bit of a stand-up comedian in him. He admits he feels pressure now to be entertaining. So he makes sure to keep up a fast patter, and includes in his broadcasts such things as a voice-changer, sound effects and animation.
Regular chatters get their names placed on his Periodic Table of Chat, and get to choose the square that designates their favorite element (his, for the record, is aluminum).
Then there's the Fishy Cam, which shows the little aquarium on his desk where a little blue fish, Lord Kevlin III, "the most beautiful beast in all the seven sea kingdoms," is seen swimming happily.
One of his listeners on this day asks what happened to the first two Lord Kelvins. Melko draws a line down his cheek. "Single tear. We don't talk about that."
However, before the broadcast, he mentions dark theories that the Lord Kelvin before this one (all three Kelvins, by the way, were named after "a famous thermodynamics guy"), was poisoned by students the night before a test. Perhaps by overfeeding.
But he'd rather not get into all that. "Swim in peace, little buddies," he says.
Melko broadcasts at Twitch.tv/profmelko each Monday and Tuesday at 2 p.m. Each segment lasts at least an hour, though it often goes far longer. Some of it's wacky stuff.
Such as the person who asks what he likes better: Prof or doctor?
"Prof, I suppose. I'm a doctor, I got my PhD, but I'm the wrong kind of doctor if you're on a plane and somebody has a heart attack. 'Yes, I'm a doctor. Oh no, not that kind of doctor. Just a professor of chemistry, I can't help you at all. Sorry.'"
On this day, one of the planned discussion items in the Melko Lab is the recent Nobel Prize for chemistry, given to three scientists for their work on lithium-ion batteries. One of the scientists, he can't help but note, has a rather distinctive name.
"Nobel Prize Professor Goodenough. Yes, that's literally the guy's name who won the Nobel Prize, chat. Can you imagine the complex that guy grew up with? 'Are you Goodenough?' 'Yes, of course I'm good enough.' Hmm. But that keeps us going."
A joke, yes, but then Melko launches into a detailed explanation of how batteries are designed, what it takes to make them work, and where they may go from here.
For all the levity, the Melko Lab is meant to be a place to revel in the joys of chemistry and science — and as a real help to his UNF students. He sees evidence that's it's working: He's getting good feedback, and in the spring semester of General Chemistry II, the average GPA went up by .2 points, as did the instructor rating given him by students. That sounds small, he says, but it's significant.
Melko grew up in South Florida, and put his competitive streak to work at basketball, as well as a mathlete and chess player ("I don't want to nerd myself, but ...").
He's in his sixth year teaching at UNF. After getting his undergrad degree at the University of Florida and his doctorate at Penn State, he was a contractor for the Air Force, living in New Mexico, studying what happens when space vehicles or satellites come back into the atmosphere under intense heat.
At UNF, his attention has shifted. "I sort of transitioned to Mars," he says. At his lab on campus, he and students are trying to help determine the climate on Mars, studying reactions in the planet's middle to upper atmosphere, using information from satellites.
Melko says he's long wanted to be an astronaut, though at 6-foot-4, he says he's an inch too tall. "I applied, but — I'm sure that's the reason I didn't get it," he says. "That was the dream. Still is."
He believes the number of his students showing up on the stream, asking questions about homework or test prep, has greatly increased. Some come on using their real names, while others stay anonymous.
"I like learning, and I like inspiring that in others as well," Melko says. "It's a good medium for that because people are very uninhibited in the chat when they're anonymous."
Few students came when he had just regular office available. Some said they were too busy with jobs or family. Some had already left for the day and didn't want to come back. Some found in-person questions too intimidating — no matter how much he tries to make it relaxed.
That led him to what would become the Melko Lab.
Melko still holds in-person office hours. Any time a student comes into his Twitch stream with a question, that student gets priority — and all other discussions get put to the side.
His work in online education has gotten some attention. Twitch even invited him to be on a panel at its TwitchCon in San Diego, speaking on streaming and education, and he's part of a network of teachers forming on the online service. They call themselves the Knowledge Fellowship.
He gets all kinds of questions at the Melko Lab. An example: "If I mix this and this, will it explode? That's a common one, and I don't always know," he says.
But he figures they can look it up together, and make it a conversation topic and a learning point.
"That's the job of a professor, right?" Melko says. "Trying to explain something from this level all the way up to that level, depending on the audience."
During this particular lab, no one so far has asked about blowing anything up, but conversation on batteries is going strong when a participant jumps in with a compliment. Melko reads it out loud.
"'Just want to say, thanks for doing this and for being a good teacher for your students.'"
"Aww, thank you," Melko says, before reading on: "'I'm pretty sure if I had a teacher like you before I chose all my subjects, I would have done chemistry. But they can't let me go back now, so I'll see you. Have a good life!'"
It's a nice moment, but Melko barely pauses. There's much more Melko Lab to come.
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