The first year I began teaching, a student humbled me in my animal physiology class. I think I was talking about temperature regulation (how appropriate, for my first teaching job was at the University of Alaska). I was ticking off the adaptations for low temperature survival when suddenly an older student in a flannel shirt interrupted.
“I wonder if that is how the rock rabbits survive the Alaskan winters.”
I asked him what he meant. He proceeded to take all of the esoteric abstract points I had just enumerated and relate them to his observations in the wild. I was floored. This student had just done something I had never done—leave the world of the classroom and academic tomes and connect the concepts to his own firsthand experiences—in a flash. It was my first glimpse into a classroom where a science course was truly relevant, where students could learn science by actively discussing it, instead of passively taking notes during lectures.
During the past 15 years, in my undergraduate biology courses at UB, I have been striving to replicate and expand that moment by actively involving students in class discussions. More recently, as director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, headquartered at UB and funded by the National Science Foundation, I have begun teaching others to do it as well.
Students passively taking notes in a class are apt to be stunned when a habitual lecturer suddenly gets it into her head to ask a question smack dab in the middle of her discourse on mitochondrial DNA. “So what do you think Allan Wilson did when he realized that the neutral mutations might be used as a molecular clock?” And, moments later, “Can anyone tell me what amino acid the AGG codon stands for?” Should we be surprised when no one answers?
But all is not lost. By developing and refining the case study method, I have found that it is possible to successfully lead discussions in undergraduate science courses. For example, in a case study of the Galapagos Islands developed by myself and Nancy A. Schiller, UB librarian and codirector of the center, students use problem-based learning and role-playing to analyze the geological origins of the Galapagos Islands, their colonization, species formation and threats to their biodiversity. Our story spurring this classtime exploration concerns a graduate student who is doing research on the islands and who gets caught between local fishermen and government officials fighting for control of the islands’ natural resources.
Another example from the center’s case study collection has students tackle the timely issue of stem cell research and corneal implants. Written by Kari Mergenhagen, a UB honors student, it is about Lucy—blind since childhood following an accident—who has never given up hope that she might see again. So, when her ophthalmologist tells her about a promising study being conducted at a university medical center, Lucy eagerly signs on. This particular case study explores the use of adult stem cells and amniotic membranes to restore vision after traditional transplants have failed.
Indeed, case studies are nothing new, having been first taught in the law and business schools at Harvard University in the early part of the 20th century. But as I’ve tried to illustrate, it turns out this method holds exceptional promise for teaching science, too. The reason? People love stories, and cases are simply stories with an educational message. Students learn better if they have a “context in which to learn.”
Students who have been shown the case study method love it. In a survey of faculty we have trained, 92 percent reported that their students were more engaged in classes employing case studies compared to when no cases were used in that course. If they say ideas out loud—weighing the pros and cons and defending their logic—chances are they will walk away with a firmer grasp of the subject than if they simply heard about the subject matter in a standard lecture.
Professors, too, are energized by the method. In workshops we have conducted to advance and explain the case study method, we find the professors involved get creative, turning a class in Newtonian mechanics, for example, into the story of a cheerleader chosen as part of a wager with the football team to find a way to lift a 300-pound football player.
The case study does have some potential weaknesses. There is a chance the discussion will be formless, like a verbal amoeba roaming the landscape disgorging factoids and emotional debris from its pseudopodia. There is also the need to relinquish some control to your listeners. After all, you are inviting them to the party. But, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
The bottom line: students learn more.