Case-Studies Approach Improves Student Performance In Science Courses

Release Date: June 4, 1998 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Faced with the prospect of taking a notoriously unpopular college course, students have been known to protest: "You'd have to pay me to take it!"

This week, 40 students at the University at Buffalo have struck just such a deal. Their professors are hoping that they will find it intellectually -- as well as financially -- rewarding.

As part of a National Science Foundation-supported workshop UB is sponsoring on "Case Studies in Science," each student is receiving $100 -- paid by the NSF -- to participate in a simulated class and then to provide a detailed critique of it.

The workshop, which admitted only 30 faculty members, is designed to provide professors at other colleges and universities with an intensive education in writing case studies to use in undergraduate science classes for nonmajors.

Faculty participating in the workshop represent such institutions as Syracuse University, Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University and Purdue University.

"I'm out to revolutionize the teaching of science," said Clyde F. Herreid, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and workshop director.

For the past eight years, Herreid, who has pioneered the case-study approach for science teaching, and other UB science faculty members have used it in the undergraduate "Scientific Inquiry" course for nonscience majors.

Their data show that when they use the approach, student attendance rates jump to 95 percent, compared to an average of 50-75 percent in some lecture-format courses, and students generally learn and retain more than in traditional courses.

According to Herreid, using case studies -- standard practice in business, law and medicine -- has enormous potential because it humanizes science, involving students in the most exciting aspects of what he calls "frontier science."

"Textbooks give us something that is cut and dried, that looks crisp, sharp and intelligent," he said. "But I want to give students a sense of the chaos that really goes on in science, to demonstrate not how scientists say they go about doing science, but how they really do it."

The approach involves the use of cases, important and often controversial historical and contemporary stories that concern scientific ideas and issues, as well as basic principles about scientific phenomena.

Examples developed at UB include "Bad Blood: A Case Study of the Tuskegee Syphilis Project," "Life on Mars -- A Dilemma Case Study in Planetary Geology" and "Human Cloning: Dialogues as Case Studies."

In each one, students learn the facts surrounding the issue and then are given the necessary information with which to solve problems surrounding a case. Students must demonstrate their understanding of the science involved in the case through a number of possible methods. They may, for example, be asked to participate in a laboratory exercise or write a paper that argues a particular view.

In one course taught by Herreid, students staged a mock trial about the spotted-owl debate. "Witnesses" from the logging industry and from conservation groups presented their opinions; students responded to the issues raised and wrote papers.

Herreid said that the method is particularly engaging for students not majoring in science.

"Students who want to major in science have this tolerance for the bad teaching that goes on in many college science classes," said Herreid. "They like the science so much that they know the material will get better. But people who are not inherently scientific do not have that tolerance."

He said that the case-study approach improves the learning experience for nonmajors by getting them more involved.

"The students care about these case studies," he said. "They learn the material as they need to learn it."

A few years ago, he used the issue of DNA testing in the O.J. Simpson trial as a way to teach genetics.

"I want to reach kids where they live," said Herreid. "If I want to talk about DNA, what better way is there than to talk about the Simpson trial?"

Herreid has teamed up with Nancy Schiller, associate librarian in UB's Science and Engineering Library and co-director of the workshop, who has developed the Case Studies in Science World Wide Web site.

The address is

So far, the site contains nine detailed cases, including suggestions for how to teach them by the UB faculty members who developed them.

Each faculty member attending this week's workshop is expected to contribute one case to the site within six months; in return, they will receive $250 under the NSF grant.

The site also includes numerous links to Web sites that are good sources for developing more case studies, such as those including classic papers in various sciences, as well as sites for scientific publications and centers for the study of political and ethical issues related to science.

Attendance rates have jumped to 95 percent in some instances when case studies -- standard practice in business, law and medicine – are used at the University at Buffalo in science courses for nonscience majors.

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