I teach undergraduate Genetics, an important course in the Biology department curriculum. My students want to help people with disease or discover cures for disease. My job is to help students understand disease, the basis of which is often genetic, for example, cancer is a genetic disease. Genes acquire mutations, which can lead to gene dysfunction, which can lead to abnormal cell growth, which can lead to cancer.
Genetics is an old science, yet today it’s all over the news and even in commercials, from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to 23andMe. The challenge in teaching genetics is to ensure genetic concepts are well understood right from the beginning because they build over the course of the semester. My philosophy is to make genetics intriguing but not intimidating, to inspire students to understand rather than memorize. I’ve found that relating basic genetic concepts to examples of humans with disease makes the concepts more interesting. I use real life examples, sometimes referring to famous people, for example, the royal families of Europe (hemophilia) or the Rudolf family from the reality show, ‘Little People, Big World’ (dwarfism). Recently, I introduced breaking news in medicine, which works especially well if we recently covered the topic in lecture. The gene-edited babies in China is a perfect example as we had just gone over CRISPR gene editing.
My greatest challenge is to energize 75 students over a 75-minute lecture. One effective tool is to insert YouTube videos into my PowerPoint presentations. For example, I showed a video of an actual patient with autism, and the family’s reaction to being informed that a specific genomic disorder caused her type of autism. Another example is to use clips from lectures by renowned scientists about their discoveries. Finally, I also incorporate short movies of animated drawings that bring concepts to life, which help students visualize those concepts.
A second effective way to focus students during a long lecture is to take opportunities for in- class problem solving, whereby students work on problems for 10 minutes, either solo or with their neighbors. This is followed by me, or a student, using the white board to go over the problem and have Q&A. Though they review problem sets with a TA in recitation each week, I find spending time in lecture reinforces the particular concept right away. These exercises also help me gauge how well the class is learning the concept.
I take suggestions from student evaluations for ways to better the class. One suggestion last year was to review practice-test problems in class, not just in recitation. I did this on the white board the lecture before the exam, and seeing puzzled looks I realized the difficulty of the problem and went over it step by step.
In summary, I continually seek ways to enhance student learning of genetic concepts in my class. Only by understanding the root of genetic diseases can they go on to help and cure people with those diseases.