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!