Monday, November 28, 2005

Dr.Love-of-Strange, or How I Learned To Love The Malaria...

There has been literally an explosion of new knowledge about malaria in the last ten years or so. It is an amazing disease. Looking at all the new findings coming out almost every week makes me salivate because of...teaching! Malaria is a fantastic case-study to keep mentioning over and over again throughout the course. Let me backtrack for a moment....

I teach general biology to adult non-science majors at a community college. It is a speed course, lasting only eight weeks. In eight meetings, one has to deliver an enormous amount of material to an audience that is terrified of science. Last time they had a science class was many years ago in high school. All they remember is that it was boring and hard.

At the time most of my students took biology in high school, the state syllabus was one of the most atrocious in the nation - much rote memorization of Latin words, be it human bones, parts of the flower, taxonomy of worms, or the steps in the Krebs cycle. Of course it was boring and hard - the old German style of teaching designed to instill discipline, not knowledge.

A few years ago, in response to Rep.Russell Capps' (R - Wake Co.) attempt to bring Creationism into NC classrooms, the state rewrote the science curriculum and it is now one of the best in the country - every unit in biology is taught within an evolutionary context. Teaching freshmen biology majors at State is a real pleasure now - those kids are excited and already knowledgable. But my adult students are not, and that makes them much more difficult to teach.

One of the problems of teaching introductory biology, at any level, is the way many units do not have an obvious relationship to "real life" of the students, especially the non-science majors. "Why should I learn this when it has no relevance to my life?' they ask.

The second problem is that biology is so big. The course is broken down into units, each unit introducing a different subdiscipline, e.g., genetics, evolution, behavior, anatomy, ecology, microbiology, etc. Taught like this, the units do not appear connected to each other. It feels like every week one starts on a completely different branch of science.

The solution to both problems is to find good case studies to use to introduce each topic. Hopefully, the case-study will be something "sexy", something that media writes about a lot, e.g., stem cell research, cloning, spotted owl habitat, global warming. I discovered that diseases are the best attention grabbers of all of such topic. By using cancer, AIDS, avian flu, SARS, etc. one can introduce any topic in biology and make it relevant to the student. Mad Cow Disease is a great way to get the students to pay attention before you lunge into the difficult lecture on protein synthesis (you start with prions, then work backwards).

The best examples are those diseases that can be used to span several topics. I found that Lyme disease and West Nile virus are really good for this - important discoveries on those were made by a whole range of researchers coming from very diffeerent angles, from genomics to ecology.

But by far the best is malaria. No matter what I talk about, I can smuggle malaria into it in one way or another. Genetics and genomics? Sure, this is the only disease in which all players' genomes have been sequenced (host - human, vector - mosquito, and parasite - Plasmodium). Population genetics? Sure. Blood physiology? Of course. Tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins? Just remember the sickle-cell anemia, which is also great for teaching about Mendelian inheritance. From protozoology and parasitology, through entomology and olfactory neurobiology, to immunology and evolution, one can always somehow bring malaria into the conversation. Hey, just this one story spans behavior, circadian clocks, evolutionary arms-races, melatonin, cellular endocrinology and insect olfaction (also see this, via this)!

And now there is more! Who would have thought that malaria had anything to do with taste and alcoholism?! I can already see how much fun teaching next spring will be.

Having malaria (or some such topic of your own choosing) coming up over and over again helps to unify various subdisciplines of biology in the minds of students. They see at least one example in which important knowledge has been accumulated by researchers in various fields. It is not just molecular biologists that can figure stuff out about diseases. Field ecologists can provide some key information - sometimes the most important piece of information from the point of view of prevention and treatment.

It also shows how deeply evolutionary thinking runs through all areas of biology. Practically all major advances in the study of malaria came through application of evolutionary theory to the disease. Just saying this is so may not be enough - demonstrating it, every week, on a topic they are inherently interested in, may help drive the point much harder.

technorati tag:

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 11:48 PM | permalink | (9 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink