More Science Faculty "Kick the Lecture Habit" in Favor of Case Studies Method Developed at University at Buffalo

Professors using the method will change the way undergraduates nationwide learn science

Release Date: May 14, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Want to make college science faculty really nervous?

Tell them to stop lecturing and start telling stories, instead.

That's the advice that science faculty hear when they participate in one of the "Case Studies in Science" workshops at the University at Buffalo, directed by Clyde (Kipp) Herreid, Ph.D., SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

"It's quite a challenge and some of the professors get very nervous," admits Herreid.

"We've had professors crying in bathrooms," he says. "We've even had one or two leave the workshop in the middle."

But then an amazing thing happens: the professors get creative, transforming lecture notes on cellular respiration into a vivid crime scene complete with yellow police tape and spilled red paint for blood or turning a class in Newtonian mechanics 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.

By the end of the five-day workshop, the professors love case studies.

Luckily, so do the students.

Back on campus, nearly 90 percent of workshop participants embrace the method in their own teaching and 92 percent report that their students are "more engaged" as a result, according to a survey conducted by the Survey Research Lab in the Department of Sociology, UB College of Arts and Sciences and educational consultants Ciurzck & Company.

Student attendance goes way up, too, even in courses largely made up of nonmajors just trying to satisfy their science requirements.

Now, with a prestigious $1.2 million national dissemination grant from the National Science Foundation to UB's National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, Herreid will be instructing more than 2,000 science professors nationwide using the method over the next three years, ultimately reaching nearly half a million undergraduates.

The grant doubles the number of workshops that will be given throughout the year and provides full scholarships for faculty from minority institutions. It provides resources so that the UB center can create a searchable database for its nearly 200 cases, which will allow professors to teach case study "short courses" at scientific conferences in their fields and will provide for quantitative assessment of results. It also provides for the dissemination of cases through the Journal of College Science Teaching.

According to Herreid, the "magic" of the case approach is that through role-playing, debates or group presentations, students become directly involved in a controversial, unresolved topic that has a solid, scientific core and deals with important social and policy issues.

In lectures, on the other hand, students swallow information, regurgitate it and go home.

"The information can pass from the teachers' yellowed lecture notes into the students' notebooks without going through the brains of either of them," he says.

But cases carry with them an emotional hook that makes students care about what's going to happen next, according to Herreid.

"Human beings love stories," he said. "We're storytelling animals."

In providing scholarships for professors who teach at minority institutions, Herreid said, the grant targets a group where case studies should be especially successful.

"We believe that people who have a strong oral tradition in their culture are particularly attracted to the idea of storytelling as a method of communication," he said.

The goal is to reach about 150 faculty members at minority institutions with the help of the grant.

This summer, approximately 20 faculty members from historically black colleges or universities, Hispanic institutions and tribal colleges will be among the attendees at the UB workshops.

The grant also provides for workshops to be given on the campus of a minority institution to be selected in coming months.

The idea at the workshops is not just to learn about using case studies or, as Herreid calls it, "stories with an educational message," but by the end of the five days to work with other participants to teach a case to real, live students who actually are paid to participate and critique the professors. Once they leave the conference, the professors also are expected to submit an original case of their own.

Herreid says there is nothing revolutionary about using cases to teach courses in the humanities. "But in the sciences, the lecture method is particularly strongly embedded," he notes. "There seems to be a conviction among scientists that young people who enter the field need to be told all the facts and principles first before they can start using them. It's only later, in graduate school, where they are really allowed to start using this information in a creative way."

That conviction not only does a disservice to the people who already are interested in science careers, said Herreid, but it needlessly turns off many nonmajors.

"The idea with cases is to let students experience some of the ambiguity that all scientists have to deal with as they explore," said Nancy Schiller, associate librarian in the Arts and Sciences Libraries at UB and co-director of the UB center.

In one case, for example, students read a newspaper story about a fraudulently conducted clinical trial for a cancer drug, and then have to recreate their own clinical trial in which someone manipulates the data to make the drug look more powerful than it really is.

In another, the central character, a museum curator, must decide whether or not to show a painting as a hitherto "undiscovered" Cezanne. The stylistic analysis suggests it is real, but data obtained using different spectroscopic techniques are inconclusive. Students study the data to determine whether the painting is authentic or a fake.

Yet another case describes the establishment of the company, Clonaid, which made headlines last year by claiming it had produced the first human clone. Students read about the company's claims of success and consider the evidence.

Herreid and Schiller suggest that professors have their students work on cases as part of small groups or teams.

For the past 14 years, Michael Hudecki, Ph.D., research professor of biological sciences at UB, has been using case studies to teach Perspective in Human Biology (Biological Sciences 129/130) to nonmajors.

Stories that Hudecki has used "in great detail" in his classes include one about Alzheimer's disease, where a mouse is injected with amyloid protein to simulate memory loss; one that involves the issue of how prayer may affect the outcome of cardiovascular disease, and a case in which a mother must decide whether to enroll her son, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, in an experimental treatment.

"Cases add immediacy, critical thought and interest to the topics I cover," he said. "From my experience, students react to stories they can participate in, regardless of their science background."

Cases in the UB database cover both undergraduate and graduate level courses designed for nonmajors and majors in chemistry, biology, pharmacy, anthropology, astronomy, computer science, psychology, food sciences and others.

The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science Web site is at

Mary Lundeberg, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

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