UB Professor Urges Use of Case Studies to Improve Science Instruction, U.S. Scientific Literacy O.J. Simpson Case Already Utilized In Classroom Study of Dna Fingerprinting

Release Date: August 19, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As was the case with his televised preliminary hearing, O.J. Simpson's murder trial is going to be a legal classroom for Americans.

According to a University at Buffalo distinguished teaching professor of biological sciences, the trial also will provide an opportunity to prove the relevance of science.

Case studies have long been used in teaching law, business and medicine, and now Clyde F. Herreid, Ph.D., says it's time to use them to teach basic science. By capitalizing on events that students find interesting, he adds, the method has the potential to boost scientific literacy and make science education more user-friendly.

Herreid, academic director of UB's honors program, already has capitalized on public interest in the Simpson case to involve students enrolled this summer in a course for nonscience majors in a lesson on DNA fingerprinting.

To set the stage for the classroom whodunit, the students first gathered information on the Simpson case and wrote a summary of the facts.

They used colored beads to construct chains of DNA and, ultimately, convict one of five suspects in a fictional murder. Each color represented a different kind of molecule. Based on information on the killer's genetic code, typically isolated from blood samples found at crime scenes, students pieced together a DNA "fingerprint" to compare with those of the five suspects.

"This models exactly the same technology that will be used in the Simpson case," says Herreid.

"The case is a story, and stories are always interesting to people," he adds. "Unless we put material in context, what good is it?"

The use of cases, or the "case method," involves learning by doing, developing analytical and decision-making skills, and knowing how to grapple with messy, real-life problems. Herreid notes that case studies have a strong appeal for students turned off by the lecture format of traditional science courses.

For the past four years, he and other UB science faculty members have used the case method with core material in the undergraduate “Scientific Inquiry” course for nonscience majors. They have found that when the method is used, students enjoy learning and remember more, and attendance rates are as high as 95 percent, up from 50-65 percent in lecture-format courses.

The cases Herreid selects involve controversial, unresolved topics that have a solid scientific core and deal with important social issues and public policy.

Cases, he explains, may be developed from pre-existing materials that are cheap and easy to find, including newspapers, books and movies. When instructors obtain cases from familiar sources that are recognizable parts of the students' world, it is a fast, timely, engaging and relatively easy way to pique students' interest, he says DNA technology becomes a more appetizing topic, for example, when it's the focus of a case study based on Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park."

Michael S. Hudecki, Ph.D., a UB research associate professor of biological sciences, has used a single 100-word paragraph from The New York Times as the basis for an entire class period for students in a freshman seminar called "Origins of Contemporary Biology."

Students' vitality and interest levels surpassed his expectations after introducing the case, which was about memory loss in mice. "It sort of developed a life of its own," Hudecki says. By the end of the class, students were eager to read the original research article on which the story was based.

Hudecki uses newspaper articles because of their ability, in one or two short paragraphs, to capture students' interest.

Case studies, he says, enable students "to put on a scientific hat" and share "the wonder, the awe and the excitement of science."

Herreid notes that traditionalists have argued that the case method cannot cover the same amount of information as lectures, maintaining that it may not be suited to deliver a multitude of facts, figures and principles.

He adds: "But just because you covered it, doesn't mean that the students understood it."

While the case method is used most easily in general-education courses dealing with science and society, it can spice up advanced courses. Instructors may experiment with the method by inserting a single case into a normal lecture course.

Herreid, for example, incorporated a single case study into an evolutionary biology class of 370 students and found that it stimulated class interest and maximized student participation in a course that was otherwise entirely devoted to lectures.

Named a SUNY distinguished teaching professor in 1988 and a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor's Award For Excellence in Teaching in 1981, Herreid has authored scholarly articles on the use of the case method, including two published earlier this year in the Journal of College Science Teaching.

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