Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 21, 2013

Editorial: Instructor's methods inspire NMC students

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — If you were lucky enough to have one, you remember: a teacher, professor or instructor you connected with, someone who cut through the static and made you think, helped you understand the material like never before and, in some cases, inspired.

If the education industry could teach every teacher how to engage students in ways that caught and kept their interest, we’d have fewer dropouts and more high school and college grads. Most of all, we’d likely have more people doing the kind of work they want to do and happier for it.

Nick Roster, a Northwestern Michigan College human biology, anatomy and physiology instructor, seems to have the knack. Inspired by a faculty adviser at Oklahoma State University, Roster wrote a doctoral thesis on biology and education and he uses a teaching method that emphasizes using case studies, technology, problem solving and teamwork over lectures.

He finds that students respond to “story telling” more than facts and often uses unique medical situations — such as the story of an early 1800s Kentucky family that began producing blue-tinged children (traced in part to a problem enzyme that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen) — to teach.

Applying theory to the classroom, he admitted, has been an “incredibly difficult transition.” But that method — called a “flipped classroom” — is gaining traction nationally. Roster lectures around the country about the drawbacks of lectures. He points to a study that shows how Harvard medical students’ brain activity while sitting in a lecture fell lower than measured brain activity during TV-watching and sleeping.

“These were Harvard medical students and the lectures at Harvard are good,” he said.

Roster’s students must still master foundational knowledge — such as identifying muscle groups — but students can use an iPad loaded with different anatomy apps.

Students must also do assigned reading, watch podcasts and they’re quizzed on the material. They take the quiz a second time, but with a pod of fellow students. Roster then presents a case study the student pods discuss together.

It’s an intensely interactive way to teach, and it doesn’t connect with everyone. But Roster and others get credit for turning the lecture-notes-exams model on its head and trying to get students to think and analyze as they must in the real world.

Brandy Bray, who is entering her senior year at Grand Valley State University, remembers Roster’s blue children lesson well and wishes more teachers used his methods. They’re “still teaching the same way they’ve done it for the last 1,000 years,” she said.

There are better ways, and Nick Roster knows some. Change is possible.