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The New Media Department of The Post and Courier

SATURDAY, MARCH 26, 2005 12:00 AM

Professor champions online learning

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Coming to an Internet "favorites" list near you: the Web site of a lanky 63-year-old professor in Charleston who's risen to No. 2 on the charts. The Google charts, that is.

By weekday, he's preparing for talks on Blogging 101 within his extra-large cubicle ringed with books and terminals at the Cannon Place administrative building. At night, he's at home downloading pictures and updating his burgeoning group of online pages. Sunday mornings, you can catch him jogging and photo-logging the new Cooper River bridge.

So who is this online sensation? He's C. Frank Starmer, associate provost of information technology at the Medical University of South Carolina.


OK, he's not exactly famous. He characterizes himself as an average guy. "I'm Frank nobody," he said.

A bit strong, perhaps. But Starmer, who joined MUSC seven years ago from Duke University, is making the point that he's succeeded without being a computer whiz of Bill Gatesian proportions, master politician, sports figure, movie star or hip-hop artist. Thanks in part to the Internet -- which he sees as a great equalizer -- Starmer is a known quantity in circles as disparate as India and Pennsylvania.

The Discovery Channel a few years back stumbled onto his Internet site's digital photo catalog and entertaining descriptions of a banana spider's 12-foot web in the back yard of his Ashley Avenue home, which is within walking distance of Cannon Place.

The cable network featured his findings about the unusual spider, which spins silk that is the strongest substance in nature.

Then one August day in 2003, Starmer took a few pictures of the bridge construction from the S.C. Aquarium to help his grandkids, ages 7, 5, and 3, keep track of what's happening. It grew into a regular routine, snapping shots from the same spot at the neighboring IMAX Theatre dock and, more recently, from the "old" bridge -- a practice he started after jogging over the span while being without a car one week.

"I'm in the science business," said Starmer, who is a professor of biostatistics, bioinformatics, epidemiology and cardiology. "You look at standardized images and document change." That's why he rises at 7 a.m. Sunday to jog across the old bridge, picking a time when there isn't much traffic. "The Mount Pleasant police stopped me once," he said. They weren't concerned with the running or photography, but his safety. So they offered to trail him. "That's great!" he said.

Not long after Starmer posted his first bridge photos, his bridge Web pages were discovered. The president of High Steel Structures, the Lancaster, Pa., company that makes steel reinforcing bar for the new 572-foot-tall cable-stay bridge, sent a letter commending him. Today, the company highlights Starmer's online updates so employees can see the week-to-week progress of the largest structure of its kind in North America.

The site has become so popular that when people typed "Cooper River bridge" in the Google search box, Starmer's site was the second one to scroll up last week. (It's currently third; the Cooper River Bridge Run site passed it.)

Between the spiders, bridge and other subjects, "I've probably got 5,000 to 6,000 photos" on the web site, he said.


The Internet isn't Starmer's only project. He and wife Ellen have traveled extensively. He spent a year in the early 1990s at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, where his four children kept tabs via the computer. For six months in 1997, he lived in Greece on a Fulbright scholarship.

Starmer traveled to the former Soviet Union close to 20 years ago because of the country's interest in drugs that controlled heart rhythms -- a computer-oriented research project he worked on at Duke since pre-PC days. Despite the "Evil Empire" reputation, the Soviet people were warm and friendly, he said. "I saw different cultures had different ways of looking at the same issue," he said.

Starmer has a picture from a half-marathon he ran in a science city south of Moscow where Valentin Krinsky, the 1980 winner of the country's top science prize, the Lenin Award, strained alongside clad in plaid shirt and blue jeans handing him a cup of water since the route had no water stops.

On another trip, the Starmers worked at an orphanage in Nepal, a small country in the Himalayan Mountains. They sponsored sister and brother Kisan Upadaya and Amar Shrestha, helping to raise them from young adulthood. The siblings are now in their 30s and hold professional positions at Duke University and the Harris-Teeter supermarket chain, respectively.

Locally, Starmer has teamed with teachers at E.L. Frierson Elementary School on Wadmalaw Island to help them pick up tips on how to observe the world.

Yet none of these projects, both Internet and non-Internet related, involve an urge to get his name out. They all connect in some shape or form to his thoughts on education. In particular, he's intrigued with "co-learning," where people willingly and enjoyably trade ideas. That's become much easier thanks to the incredibly broad Internet, its lightning-fast "search" engines, wide-ranging Internet logs dubbed "blogs" and almost instant e-mail, enabling neophytes to study virtually any topic in seconds.

"The whole world is a classroom," he said.

Starmer related co-learning to today's schools, which he believes haven't changed their basic core teaching practices from decades ago. He calls that type of learning "just in case," where students are taught about a whole pile of things, whether useful or not -- just in case they need them in the real world someday. The trouble is, people forget things when they aren't repeated, so a bit of information they hear in high school may not be recalled decades later.

He believes educators instead should focus on "just in time" learning, made practical by the Internet.

Now, anyone can grasp a subject at the exact moment they want to, or need to, by e-mailing an expert, posting thoughts on a blog, or searching the ubiquitous Google search engine, which he calls "my short-term memory."

Actually, his online site started as a sideline. But noticing its ties to his theories of learning, "I kind of turned the Web page into a project." For one, it shows youngsters that there's nothing wrong with asking questions. "Here's an adult displaying hyper-curiosity," he said.

The Web site fits Starmer's personality, too.

"I enjoy solving problems as a puzzle," Starmer said in e-mailed comments that complemented a recent face-to-face interview.

"For many years, the library has been the repository of learning resources and the card catalog was used to navigate these resources. In the 21st century, the Internet is the library and search engines such as Google are electronic card catalogs. Worldwide Internet connectivity provides everyone with anywhere, anytime access to this electronic library," he said.

Moreover, the Internet has opened up a whole new world for the old standby, the Q&A. If Starmer didn't understand something about spiders, the bridge or other things, he would post a question on his Web site. Invariably, someone would e-mail him. He's heard from civil engineers as far away as Malaysia and the Federal Highway Administration. In the past few months, he added a blog, where he writes down his impressions of the bridge.

Sometimes, Google alone would ferret out the answer. One day, he photographed conical-shaped objects punched in concrete on the new bridge.

He typed in something generic, "concrete testing cones." Web addresses popped up that led him to the technical name, a "slump" cone, and its use, to measure concrete's texture -- whether it is strong or "slumps" under weight.

"I really believe that it is easier to find the answer to a question or learn a new concept with Google and the Internet than it was 10 years ago. I would even go so far as to say that search skills and critical thinking are essential tools for 21st-century survival, along with reading, writing and arithmetic." He's mastered little tricks, too, such as searching Google Images for a photo that eventually leads back to text about a subject.


Starmer's inquisitive nature has carried him places not often seen by Joe Public, such as the top of the new Cooper River bridge. Via e-mail and Web posts, Starmer struck up online ties with officers at the Department of Transportation, project managers Tidewater Skanska and Palmetto Bridge Constructors, and cable builder Freyssinet. The S.C. Department of Transportation arranged for him to ride up on the new roadway, tour the bridge and snap hundreds of photos.

"All those companies opened doors," he said.

A natural extension of Starmer's online pages has been his digital camera. He began taking digital images not so much as a hobby but because of their improved ability to preserve moments. His first experiments were on the coast of Mexico photographing octopus and other underwater marine life. Digital pictures proved to be clearer and easier to take. Also, film was costly and time-consuming to develop.

He uses a Nikon 5700 to capture "underwater and above-water nature photography and other topics, which arouse my curiosity like the new bridge. My photography is my attempt to capture the life that surrounds me and and is my way of exploring other cultures," he said.

The online projects also assist MUSC. He's held informal standing-room-only sessions for the Faculty Senate and the dental school on "Google 101" and "Blogging 101," showing the doctors, dentists and administrators how search engines, Web sites and other Internet tools can make their jobs more satisfying.

"I focus on enabling," he said.

Starmer is trained as an electrical engineer. He joined the Duke faculty after working on campus with the local telephone company. He met his wife while at Duke and spent 32 years at the Durham, N.C., university before relocating to MUSC in 1998. He made the move through indirect connections with school President Dr. Ray Greenberg, whom he knew through a cancer registry program he was involved with at Emory University in Atlanta.

The associate provost said his precocious nature can be traced to his youth in Greensboro, N.C., in particular the influence of his father, Charles Starmer, an engineer for a company that designed and installed elevators. He put it this way in a recent blog:

"My dad transferred many gifts to me. But perhaps the greatest gift was that of endless curiosity. When I was a kid -- we used to travel to different construction sites where he was installing elevators. Sometimes on the weekends, we would visit a sick elevator and repair it. Sometimes we simply walked from our home in Greensboro to the railroad switch house. We would sit for hours watching the trains pass. We would count the cars. Sometimes, we would enter the switch house and if we were good and very lucky, we got to throw switches which changed the communication between parallel tracks. All the time, he displayed not only curiosity but an enquiring mind."

Starmer was able to return the favor of his father's vision. Through his Cooper River bridge connections, Frank and his father, now 88, were permitted to go onto the bridge deck more than 100 feet above Charleston Harbor. "He was just blown away."

His father, who lives in a retirement home in Burlington, N.C., has played an active role in Starmer's Web chronicles. Until recently, Charles Starmer took care of putting all the photos online, where they were displayed on one long Web page. "It took forever for Dad to download pictures," he said. Starmer has since resorted to multiple pages to make it easier to navigate, developed a more streamlined way to load photos and has added text and even explanatory definitions on bridge parts. "I've redesigned the site four or five times," he said.

If Starmer had his druthers, he would make his Web site interactive.

There's no direct two-way communication; he has to post questions and hope readers will send answers. Even so, he is pleased with his Internet efforts.

"I think the time has come," he said, "that good (Internet) skills and searching are (necessary) tools for the academic world."

C. Frank Starmer

BIRTH DATE AND PLACE: Sept. 4, 1941, Greensboro, N.C.

OCCUPATION: Associate provost for information technology, Medical University of South Carolina

RESIDENCE: Ashley Avenue, Charleston.

EDUCATION: (1963) bachelor of science in electrical engineering, Duke University; (1965) master's in electrical engineering, Duke; (1968) Ph.D., bioengineering, University of North Carolina.

FAMILY: Wife, Ellen; children, Jack, Michael, Rachel and Josh; sponsored kids, Clyde Osborn (Chapel Hill), Kisan Upadaya and Amar Shrestha (both from Nepal).

HOBBIES: Distance running and photography.

TURNING POINTS IN YOUR LIFE: Two events: When I left home for my university training, I discovered I was not the brightest student there, so I learned very quickly to give everything my best shot and not worry about the end result. And so with our kids, we never fussed over grades. We were only interested in improvement. The second turning point was the summer my wife and I spent in Kathmandu, Nepal, as leaders for a group of students from Teen Missions to do a work project for a Children's Home there. I learned to value other cultures and discovered anew why I loved teaching and encouraging others.

PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THE MOST INFLUENCE ON YOU: My dad taught me that being curious was OK, and that he never met someone he could not learn from. Drs. Eugene A. Stead Jr. and Joseph Greenfield Jr., both former chairmen of Duke Medical Center's Department of Medicine, extended my dad's lessons about being curious. James Abrahamson, former pastor of the Chapel Hill Bible Church in N.C., helped me understand critical reading of Scripture, and my wife, who understands me better than I do.

FONDEST MEMORY: None really; I tend to focus on today, avoiding spending time on yesterday's memories and tomorrow's uncertainties.

FAVORITE HUMOROUS INCIDENT: My wife and I went to the market in Adyar (near Madras, India) and saw a vegetable we did not recognize. Asking the name, the sales lady said "cooking vegetable, madam." So we bought 1 kg of 'cooking vegetable.'

FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: Hardee's Thickburgers.

LAST MOVIES YOU SAW: "Fog of War," "Motorcycle Diaries" and "Hotel Rwanda."

ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE PEOPLE INTERESTED IN HOW THE INTERNET AND RELATED TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES 'CO-LEARNING': Look at the Internet as a tool that levels the information access and learning playing fields for everyone -- whether in Charleston or Valathi, India. Learning will no longer be concentrated in the large universities or in the more wealthy countries. Learning and advancement will be possible to all those who have enough curiosity to take advantage of the Internet knowledge base.

SOMETHING ACQUAINTANCES DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU: The guys in my IT Lab (Christopher, Matthew, Brian, Satya, Nathan, Nafees, Josh) have taught me more about how to use the Internet, search engines, blogs, etc. than most folks would believe.

IF YOU HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN: I don't spend too much time fussing over what I did yesterday but rather focus on what I can contribute today.

PLACES YOU HAVE TRAVELED TO: Worked in Russia (Moscow, Pushchino), Germany, France, Estonia, Latvia, Switzerland, Greece, Spain (Santiago de Compostela), Egypt, India and Nepal. Visited Mexico, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Thailand, UAE, Oman, Japan and Singapore.

PET PEEVES: Accepting that OK is good enough instead of chasing excellence. Also, solutions built on something not understood. One of my mottos is, "Always go back to first principles."

YOUR STRENGTHS: I am hopelessly curious and believe that we must find creative and imaginative ways to keep childish curiosity alive and growing in our children, and that we must foster this in our students. We must all become better learners.

YOUR WEAKNESSES: I am impatient and tend to jump to conclusions. But my weakness is also sometimes my strength. Skipping the intermediate steps sometimes gives me a new insight that is missed by others. For me, the rewards have more than offset the risk.

MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU'RE ASKED: When I visit foreign countries I am always asked by people there if I like their country. I have never found a really satisfactory answer to this question. All countries and cultures are different. I always see both positive and negative things and, of course, I love to learn from these experiences.

This article was printed via the web on 3/26/2005 9:19:53 AM . This article
appeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Saturday, March 26, 2005.

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