Tag: college freshmen

Different Approach, Different Outcome

by gwilson on Dec.02, 2009, under A Day in the Life...

Dr. Tom Benoit

Dr. Tom Benoit

An interesting thing has happened this fall in Dr. Benoit’s BIOL 1301 Unicellular Organisms class.  Among the usual collection of freshmen starting on their journey through university-level science courses is a handful of upperclass students from other majors who are in it to broaden their horizons.  Though the material may cover topics well below their level of preparation and experience, students are finding the approach taken by Dr. B is opening their eyes to seeing old things in new ways.

One of the strengths of a student-centered approach to teaching is the focus on finding ways the material can be presented using examples and terms that are approachable to an 18-year old.  Too often, college faculty muddy the water by using terminology and theoretical conventions that are common knowledge to their peers but not interesting to students and not helpful toward novice understanding.  For instance, in describing the importance of attachment between pathogen and host it would be easy to focus in on binding energy and protein conformation and specificity and such.  Bacterial virulence stemming from the presence of capsular material could center on how immunologically unreactive capsules tend to be and how host-pathogen binding can be interrupted.  Young students simply don’t have the frame of reference to make this meaningful.  So, instead Dr. B uses the example of an individual trying to pick up a wet watermelon seed to give a visual image of the difficulty phagocytic cells can have in binding to, engulfing, and destroying foreign invaders.  With that mental image to guide understanding, he can go on to explain how those more detailed elements of understanding are logical.

In my own classes, I do something similar.  Today was a discussion on enterotoxins.  We began with real-life examples.  The hamburger I ate in the Tech snack bar the morning of Steve Hickerson’s masters’ defense, and how that led to a Campylobacter infection sending me to the hospital.  Why was I so sick, and why were my symptoms “logical” formed the basis for presenting the lesson.  We talked about cholera toxin binding to adenylate cyclase to turn on ion pumps, sending ions flooding into the gut lumen.  We talked about the forces of movement through membranes and how water would rush out of cells to try to equalize ion concentrations on both sides of the gut lining.  Result – diarrhea.  I emphasized for the umpteenth time how hydrophobic/hydrophilic interactions, equilibria, and the second law of thermodynamics all make this logical – chemistry and physics are important to how life works!  We discussed where ions and water would come from to replenish supplies lost from the gut lining – the blood.  The result?  drop in blood pressure from fluid loss and ion imbalances causing cardiac arrhythmia.  Suddenly, the bacterial exotoxin is not just causing diarrhea but now is life-threatening, and the progression of cause and effect makes perfect sense to them.  And we ended the discussion by talking about the millions of children around the world that die each year from diarrhea.  What a difference we can make by helping villages find safe water supplies and putting our knowledge of microbiology to work!

Our job in BIMS is not to fill students with facts and build unrelated skills.  Such an attitude and approach results in a more combative approach by students to learning.  Retention of knowledge is poor, enthusiasm for the subject wanes, and students leave the class wondering what they learned of practical value.  Instead, BIMS seeks to use a different approach and gain a different outcome.  We personalize our approach to make it accessible and interesting, and to maximize the knowledge transfer taking place.  Students thrive in this environment and our classes are perceived as being easier, more approachable, more useful – when all we are doing is packaging the same material in new, more palatable ways.

So back to Dr. B’s class…  What a great compliment it is when students from other majors tell you they understand their own disciplines better having sat through your course.  They see our approach as not only maximizing knowledge transfer in BIMS but also in clarifying their own fields, helping connect the dots, removing the clouds of professor-ese to make that which was theoretical and unapproachable now understandable, practical, and useful for their education.  Not a bad outcome!

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by gwilson on Nov.10, 2009, under Students


Chili the Wonderdog

In the past few days I’ve experienced what every college professor relishes in – reconnection with former students.  In some ways, seeing a student graduate is like letting my dog Chili off her lead – I never know if she’s going to go chase the bunnies or remain close by and be obedient.  There’s been more than one occasion when freedom has meant chasing a cat, when it should have been all about sticking by me while we check the mail or get the newspaper.

I have been fortunate through the years to have great students and to enjoy living a portion of McMurry’s core values – that personal relationships are the catalyst for life.  Those relationships begin as students come in as freshmen and we begin to learn about each other – about our families, the importance of faith in our lives, how to balance needs and wants, where education has and will lead us.  I believe my students know me well, know my wife and sons, know that I really, really care about their success as students today and professionals of the future.  Students at small colleges like McMurry probably have no clue that their faculty live vicariously through the lives of their students, and that we feel great pride and a sense of credit and accomplishment when our alums become successful.  They take a piece of us with them and leave a piece of themselves behind when they have spent four years in our classes and offices.  And when they then graduate and go off, I know I always worry that they will chase cats and rabbits and neglect to stay in touch.

Dr. Gena Nichols in my office yesterday

Dr. Gena Nichols in my office yesterday

I have seen the beginning and endpoint of that journey in the past week, starting with Student Preview on Saturday.  Talking with prospective students and their parents is always enjoyable, as I emphasize the strength of our programs and more importantly the strength of our relationships with students.  If those in attendance at Preview could only have a glimpse of the outcome of a McMurry education!   I was reminded of that on Sunday, when Dr. Sharla Owens sent a friend request on Facebook from California where she practices and teaches emergency medicine.  Our college-age sons were just little guys when our family drove down to Galveston for her graduation from UTMB.  Then today, Dr. Chad Johnson, alumnus and physician in El Paso, contacted me to discuss a high schooler he knows who is interested in McMurry.  Chad was my barometer on the quality of our science courses during his time at McMurry.  Anytime I needed to know how we were doing, he was willing to answer truthfully.  And yesterday I was privileged to spend an hour or so with Dr. Gena Jester Nichols, catching up on people and old times, and learning about her research on Adenoviruses and how her Wake Forest PhD has prepared her for her new job as a Research Scientist at Tulane. 

Three different students, three different success stories of moving through the years from teacher-student to mentor-apprentice, and finally to friends and colleagues.  It has been a very rewarding week for me because these three alums have chosen to reconnect with McMurry’s science faculty.  May those who enter as freshmen next fall do likewise over the years to come.

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by gwilson on Jul.25, 2009, under A Day in the Life...

Move-in day at dormYesterday (Friday the 24th) concluded our third Summer Orientation And Registration (SOAR) session.  We had another hundred or so students and their families on campus to learn more about how McMurry works and to set their course schedules for the fall.  I got to peak in on registration numbers along the way and noted that we continued to add more students into our first BIMS courses.  We are finding about one in ten incoming McMurry freshmen has an interest in BIMS.  That makes BIMS one of the most popular and fastest growing majors here.

Some interesting observations so far:

  • The number of students in freshman-level science courses overall is high.  We have 198 registered for first year and general education Biology/BIMS courses, 51 in CS, 88 in Chemistry, 28 in Geosciences, 254 in Math and 51 in Physics.  As these are mostly four-hour lab courses, this represents a significant chunk of the tuition dollars coming from science sources.
  • There appear to be about three new BIMS majors for every Biology major, based on the numbers of freshmen in freshman-level courses for these majors.  BIMS courses are running around 90% freshmen, while the other biology courses for majors are running about 50% freshmen.
  • Enrollment in BIMS 1300 is 50% higher than it was last year.  Again, it looks like the Biomedical Science major is catching on!
  • There are 31 enrolled in the PREP 1105 seminar.  This Pre-Professional preparation seminar helps those early-decision health professions students to get themselves ready for application and entry into professional schools like dentistry, physical therapy, medicine, and pharmacy.

So, it has been a successful summer for enrolling BIMS majors and science students overall.  There is still time and space for others to join us, and we expect that our numbers will grow before the first greetings are spoken by Dr. Benoit on August 24th.  We are pleased with what we’ve seen so far!

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