Traverse City Record-Eagle


August 19, 2013

School daze: Tuning in students who tune out

TRAVERSE CITY — Back in the early 1800s, an isolated Kentucky family began producing blue-tinged children in Appalachia.

The medical mystery of the “blue people” stretched over six generations and ultimately was traced to a French orphan, intermarriage, and a problem enzyme that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

The case study is a favorite of Nick Roster, a Northwestern Michigan College instructor, who often uses unique medical conundrums to teach human biology and anatomy and physiology. Brandy Bray, entering her senior year at Grand Valley State University, remembers the lesson well.

“We learned a lot with that one,” she said. “Not only about the blood disorder; we also did a family tree and saw how it was passed along with a recessive gene.”

Roster, who prefers case studies to lectures, uses a blend of technology, problem solving and teamwork. Students respond to “story telling” more than facts, he said.

Roster lectures around the country, ironically, about the drawbacks of lectures. NMC teachers sometimes visit his class to watch his new approach. He recently described his teaching philosophy to the community college’s Board of Trustees, and showed how Harvard medical students’ brain activity while sitting in a lecture fell lower than measured brain activity during TV-watching and sleeping.

“Really that tells you students just aren’t engaged in lectures,” he said. “These were Harvard medical students and the lectures at Harvard are good.”

Roster’s path away from the lecture model began nine years ago, inspired by a faculty adviser at Oklahoma State University. With his guidance, Roster wrote a doctoral thesis on biology and education. But applying theory to classroom, he admitted, has been an “incredibly difficult transition.”

“It’s very comfortable to teach the way we were taught, and we all think we have really cool things to say,” he said.

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