I’ve been attending the AHA Scientific Sessions since I was a medical resident, which means close to 10 years now. While that pales in comparison to our most committed senior colleagues, it’s enough time for me to have developed a sense of what Sessions is “supposed to be.” The science that’s presented at Sessions is some of the best cutting-edge work to be seen anywhere, but much of it tends to be delivered in a fairly standard, well-worn format—a moderated series of lectures by several speakers lasting for a few hours. Each speaker gets up in front of the room and talks without interruption while the audience sits in packed rows of up to hundreds of seats, politely and passively listening to the speaker. The speaker invariably spends the first part of the talk giving an introduction to the subject at hand, and the last few minutes provide the only opportunity for the audience to ask questions of the speaker. This format is by no means exclusive to Sessions but has been shared by just about every conference I’ve ever attended in my career.
So it’s a lot of fun when there’s an opportunity to mix up the same-old, same-old format. The STEM education field is now afire with the innovations of the “flipped classroom” and “active learning” (though in truth these concepts have existed in one form or another for as long as teachers have educated students). In the flipped classroom format, students review introductory material before the face-to-face class meeting, on their own time. They come to class prepared to tackle higher-order, interactive, team-based exercises, rather than having to passively listen to an instructor lecture at them. Instead, the instructor circulates around the classroom and serves to facilitate discussions among the students as they work through the exercises together. The instructor is no longer a “sage on the stage” but, rather, a “guide on the side.” There is now fairly compelling data showing that active learning greatly improves student engagement, acquisition of knowledge, and performance.
It’s not such a leap to think that what works in the classroom should work at a conference like the AHA Scientific Sessions. In that spirit, the Council on Functional Genomics and Translational Biology has been experimenting with a “Bootcamp” flipped classroom format in which participants are asked to review online videos before they come to the conference; they then attend a two- to four-hour Session in which they gather in a lecture room, sit at round tables that serve to divide them into teams whose members can easily access their computers and devices and interact with each other, and after brief introductory remarks from a group of expert instructors then access an online case that gives them a hands-on learning experience. They work through the case, with much of the teaching happening in a peer-to-peer fashion as they discuss and even argue about the details of the case. The instructors circulate around the room to answer questions and to nudge teams in the right direction as needed. After the teams have finished the case, the instructors guide a room-wide discussion of the teams’ answers to the questions raised by the case. A lot of the fun comes from the teams not always agreeing on the “right” answers and, indeed, sometimes even the instructors not agreeing! There’s much to be learned when the solutions aren’t black and white but involve nuance and uncertainty.
It was an eye-opening experience for me to participate in two Bootcamps that took place at this year’s Sessions, one on Genome Editing and one on Clinical Genomics, and to see active learning in action firsthand. The feel was so different from traditional lecture-based Sessions. There was a buzz in the air with spirited conversations going on at all of the tables, fingers pointed at computer screens as ideas were traded. There were no passive learners in sight, and instructors were having extended conversations with attendees. Instead of attendees drifting in and out of the room as the hours passed, they were engaged from the very beginning until the very end of each Bootcamp.
In general, attendees seemed quite enthusiastic about the Bootcamps. When surveyed, about 80% of the participants reported that they had learned more from the Bootcamp format compared to the standard lecture-based format. And virtually all said that they’d like to attend Bootcamps in the future.
I think it’s fair to say that Bootcamps and other innovative formats will become a regular feature of the AHA Scientific Sessions, and the Sessions will no doubt continue to evolve as we achieve a better understanding of how to optimize adult learning. I can only imagine how different things will be when I’m attending my 25th Scientific Sessions!
Kiran Musunuru, MD PhD MPH FAHA
Kiran Musunuru is a harried but hopeful physician-scientist-teacher living the dream at Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. He volunteers extensively for the Council on Functional Genomics and Translational Biology and the Council on Clinical Cardiology