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Create a Sense of Urgency in the Classroom with Real-World Scenarios

This professor focuses labs on familiar health challenges in his students’ own community, making key scientific concepts more relatable and memorable.


Gary Patterson, MAT

Biology Instructor (currently on sabbatical), Gogebic Community College

MAT in Biology/Microbiology, BA in Science Education – Biological Sciences

In his first year as a full-time, college-level biology instructor, Gary Patterson learned plenty—not about biology but about expectations. In 2009, his students were primarily nursing majors at a college in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. “The passing rate for those first two semesters that I taught were just abysmal,” he says. Seasoned instructors told him, “Oh, that’s par for the course. That’s just the way it is.” Patterson balked at the complacency. “I thought to myself, ‘No. Maybe that’s the way that you’ve determined that it is. But that isn’t the way that it should be,’” he says.

Fortuitously, Patterson attended a workshop the following year at the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators, where a speaker discussed the importance of teaching abstract concepts within the context of the real world. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Patterson. “I totally tweaked the curriculum to incorporate more relevance and [based] the entire biology curriculum around diabetes.” (This condition is rampant in the Pacific Islands.)

The next semester, Patterson offered students a scenario that went something like this: A man went to a buddy’s house to go fishing, but when he arrived, the buddy was passed out. When the paramedics took the buddy to the hospital, they discovered he had high blood pressure and was very dehydrated, both of which are complications related to diabetes. Patterson explained that, after the hospital took a urine sample—checking pH, sugar (glucose) levels, and color—a tech mixed it up with another patient’s data. Patterson tasked the students with figuring out which data belonged to the passed-out buddy and which urine was from a normal, healthy person. Students embraced the challenge far more than they ever had with the previous year’s approach, which just had them looking at data with absolutely no context—or sense of urgency.

“The new lesson still brought home the same concepts [of biology],” says Patterson. But presenting the material in a real-world scenario helped the students not only with comprehension but also with retention and application.

Here is how he adapted his approach to appeal to American students from a wide range of age groups—and how his strategies can be used when teaching any type of material.

Challenge: Lack of genuine curiosity, a genuine fear of failure

Though Patterson (who is currently on sabbatical) has taught science majors in the past, the students in his Principles of Biology course at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, Michigan, were nonmajors, most of whom had not thought much about biology since their sophomore year in high school—which was anywhere from 3 to 20 years ago. “It’s like you’re teaching them all over again,” says Patterson. Some had forgotten the material entirely, while others found that what they “knew” had changed due to scientific advancements.

Further, many of his students were not accustomed to working out problems on their own. “They just want you to give them the answer,” he says. “And unless you attach some point value to an activity, many students won’t even attempt to complete it, because they don’t want to put down the wrong answer.”

This reveals yet another common concern: students’ fear of failure. “I don’t really care what the answer is,” he asserts. “I want [students] to muddle their way through, as I say to them, and try to figure it out, and then we’ll talk about it in class.”

Also, says Patterson, many students failed to see the relevance of the Principles of Biology course—beyond, of course, fulfilling a general education requirement toward their degree. That was particularly disappointing, he says, because biology is about us in a very literal sense.

Take, for example, diffusion and osmosis—the processes used to move materials into and out of the body’s cells. They play “such a huge role in the human body,” he explains. “I don’t think a lot of people really fully understand their importance.” (See the sidebar for a refresher.) In his Dehydration Investigation Lab, Patterson aimed to convey these concepts and their relevance in a way that was relatable to anyone with a pulse.

Innovation: Creating true-to-life lab experiments

A Crash Course in Osmosis and Dehydration

Osmosis refers to the process by which water moves without energy from where it is in higher concentration to where it is in lower concentration. This movement of water molecules is through a cell membrane. (Diffusion refers to the same type of movement, but the term is used for the movement of all kinds of molecules except water.)

In nature, materials move from the place of highest concentration to the areas of lowest concentration until there is an equal amount of the material everywhere. (Picture what happens when a drop of food coloring is added to a glass of water: It disperses until all of the liquid is a light shade of that color.)

Dehydration occurs when too much fluid moves out of the body’s cells through osmosis. This can be caused by a variety of factors, which Patterson’s students investigate in The Dehydration Investigation Lab.

In 2012, Patterson was working in Indiana with nonmajors on a biology lab, using potato cores. “Most of them simply wanted to get in, collect the data, make the graph, and get the heck out of Dodge,” he says. Like the Pacific Island students, these students needed a “hook” to increase engagement, so Patterson sought to create a scenario that was “more true to life, more reality based.”

To that end, he formulated a lab assignment in which students performed the same potato experiment, presenting the “problem” within the context of a reality-based backstory. In Patterson’s Dehydration Investigation Lab, students were asked to take on the role of hospital employees who were seeking to understand why so many patients were being admitted in a state of extreme dehydration, which required the use of an inordinate number of IV bags and supplies to replenish lost body fluids.

Why this particular scenario? “Most people are familiar with a hospital setting,” he says. Many may even have been hooked up to an IV at some point. Case in point: While serving as a missionary for the LDS church in Ecuador, Patterson became dehydrated after a bout of food poisoning and was rehydrated after being hooked up to an IV bag of saline and other electrolytes. “I was on the IV for probably five or six hours, and I was OK the next day,” says Patterson. “That was one of the things I was thinking of when I came up with this [scenario].”

He adds that The Dehydration Investigation Lab also helped him assess his students’ abilities on a more macro level. “There’s the bigger picture of helping them to understand the nature of science, as well as their ability to write up labs, make sense of data, and so on and so forth,” he says.

“One of the things that I like to try to do in a nonmajors biology class is help students understand the true nature and process of science, which is: Give students a relevant problem and have them try to figure out a way to solve it,” says Patterson.


BIO 101 Principles of Biology

See materials

“You want students to learn, [to] bring it home to them. So you put it into a context that they can understand. Whatever that happens to be, help them to recognize that there is a method to the madness. There is a reason why I need to learn this, because this is real life; this is the way it really is outside of the classroom. And yeah, maybe I’m not a biology major, but I can still apply this in my normal life to make good decisions that will help me stay healthy and live my life better.”

— Gary Patterson, MAT

Course: BIO 101 Principles of Biology

Frequency: One 3-hour lab per week and three 53-minute lecture meetings per week

Class size: 24

Course description: This course is designed as an introduction to the principles of Biology. Emphasis will be placed on cell structure, metabolism, genetics and ecology. Modern techniques of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology will be used in the laboratory.


Lesson: The Dehydration Investigation Lab

When Patterson has taught Principles of Biology in the past, these are the strategies he used to set up and conduct The Dehydration Investigation Lab:

Flip the classroom to get students up to speed

Before his students donned lab goggles, Patterson ensured that they had foundational knowledge in the concepts of osmosis, diffusion, and different types of solutions. To that end, he posted information on cellular transport (getting materials into and out of cells), including a link to a “crash course” YouTube video and a PowerPoint presentation on the subject. He also discussed the differences between hypotonic, hypertonic, and isotonic solutions (see “Context for The Dehydration Investigation Lab” sidebar) so they would understand how the lab relates to hydration.

This flipped-classroom approach puts the onus on the students to “do their homework” so they will be prepared for the next activity: in this case, Is Bigger Really Better? (see below).

Context for The Dehydration Investigation Lab

Patterson says that to do this lab, students must first understand the three types of solutions that can surround the cells of the body: hypotonic, hypertonic, or isotonic.

A solution is made up of a solute and a solvent, or basically a solid dissolved in a liquid, such as the solute salt that is dissolved in the solvent water to make saltwater.

When a cell is in a hypotonic solution, there is less dissolved solute outside the cell than inside.

When the cell is in a hypertonic solution, there is more dissolved solute outside the cell than inside.

When the cell is in an isotonic solution, there is the same amount of solute outside the cell as there is inside the cell.

Patterson illustrates what happens using photos of red blood cells in different types of solutions:

In an isotonic solution, the blood cell looks healthy because there is an equilibrium.

When the blood cell is in a hypotonic solution, such as distilled water, osmosis causes the water to rush into the blood cells, which makes them explode, leaving the ghost of a cell.

When the blood cell is in a hypertonic solution, such as a high-salt or high-sugar solution, the water inside the cell is pulled out, causing the cell to shrivel. This is dehydration: Cells lose water and become shrunken and misshapen. When this happens to a significant number of cells of the body, it can be life-threatening. (It is also the reason that people die from drinking salt water when adrift at sea—something that Patterson saw firsthand while teaching in the Marshall Islands.)

On the flip side, Patterson explains, people have died from drinking too much fluid because it, too, creates an imbalance in the body’s cells, causing a condition called hypernatremia. Patterson shares the tragic story of a five-year-old girl who died after being forced to drink grape soda, which shows the dangers of overhydrating.

Start at the cellular level

In the take-home exercise Is Bigger Really Better? Patterson asked students whether they thought larger cells would be more efficient than smaller cells when it comes to cellular transport. Students who shortchanged themselves on the prep work usually assumed that larger cells are more efficient. Patterson used an inflated balloon to illustrate why their assumption does not hold water (or air).

In this exercise, the balloon represents the cell wall and the air inside it represents the material inside. As he inflated the balloon more and more, there came a point at which the volume of air became greater than the surface area of the balloon. When this happens within a cell, the surface area of the cell will not be large enough to allow material in or out of the cell as efficiently as a smaller cell whose surface area is greater than its internal volume.

Patterson also walked students through the calculations on seven cube-shaped cells of different sizes, using formulas for surface area and volume, to further illustrate the point. (More on the math, below.)

Share a relatable case study—or two

Next, Patterson shared true or reality-based stories, as well as a variety of visual aids. When teaching cellular transport, for example, he used a PowerPoint presentation from the National Center for Case Study Teaching that concerns a young woman named Brittany who becomes sick after taking Ecstasy at a party. Embedded in this slide show, he adds, is an interactive video (“a wonderful little animated graphic”) from the University of Utah. Called Mouse Party, this tool allows the viewer to pluck drug-addled mice from a terrarium and plop them into a “brain analyzer,” which reveals how that mouse’s drug of choice—heroin, meth, or others—works within the brain.

Post a true-to-life problem for students to solve

The assignment for The Dehydration Investigation Lab takes the form of an urgent bulletin sent to a hospital’s team members (here, the students), who are asked to investigate the extraordinary quantity of IV bags and associated materials being used. The hospital memo states that many patients are being admitted in an extreme state of dehydration, and the higher-ups are asking what might be causing this. Students are asked design a controlled experiment that tests which fluids—distilled water, diet soda, regular soda, corn syrup, salt water, and alcohol—might be causing dehydration in these patients.

Ask students to set up the experiment

Patterson divided students into lab groups, which made many joint decisions on the setup and execution of the lab. He explained to the groups that raw potatoes would be used to represent the patients, and he listed the materials they would use when testing. Then he offered some leading questions to help students decide how to proceed. Examples are:

  • In what “form” will the people be represented? As potato cores or grapes, and will the cores or grapes have their skin removed or not? (Which form will be the easiest to ensure that the combined class data is valid, with matching control and experimental groups?)
  • Will the potatoes or grapes be immersed or dipped in the test solutions?
  • Should there be a time limit for the immersion or dipping?
  • What kind of data will be collected, and how will it be recorded?
  • If dehydration occurs, how will it be detected?

Patterson reminded students of the importance of creating a controlled experiment: one in which all variables are the same except for the one thing being tested (in this case, the type of fluid).

Help them drill down to the details

Invariably, some students would not spell out the experiment in enough detail, says Patterson. For example, they may have decided to use potato cores and then place them in 10 mL of solution (the fluid), but they may not have specified what type and size of container they would use. Could that little detail affect the results? Patterson says he could see (and hear) them think, “Oh!” when they realized that this was actually important.

Patterson says that this aha! moment invariably opened the floodgates: Students then began to ask deeper questions, such as, “Will 10 mL of fluid even be enough to cover the potato core? How long should the core be? And how will the length be determined?”

“Whatever students decided, everybody’s setup had to be, as nearly as possible, exactly the same,” adds Patterson. If the groups did otherwise, there would be too many variables for students to pool class data later and use it to draw comparisons.

Walk them through the math

Students who are not majoring in math, science, or related areas may not feel confident about their math skills. However, they will need to do some calculations in order to work through a lab like this one. If students were to propose to measure changes in volume to the potato core, for example, they would need to use the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder. But Patterson would begin by giving them the formula. “You kind of walk them through it,” he says.

Empower them to make choices

Recently, one lab section decided to allow the potato samples to remain in their various beakers of fluid for a whole week. Patterson says that this lengthy time frame was atypical, but the students “got some incredible results.” The exception, he says, was for the distilled water and the 1% salt solution, in which the potato turned to mush. “The bacteria got to it, and it was stinky,” he says. “So that was a learning experience for them.”

Have the class pool their data

After each lab group finished collecting its data, Patterson wrote everyone’s results on the board for all to see. “From that data, students [would] then take averages and graph the averages. Because we are all human, mistakes in data collection will [have been] made—wrong measurements, timing errors, etc.—so by pooling data and having a larger sample size, relatively small group errors don’t skew the data too badly and it’s easier to determine whether hypotheses were supported or not.”


To Patterson, there is a simple and compelling justification for presenting science within a real-world context: “You want students to learn, [to] bring it home to them. So you put it into a context that they can understand. Whatever that happens to be, help them to recognize that there is a method to the madness. There is a reason why I need to learn this, because this is real life; this is the way it really is outside of the classroom. And yeah, maybe I’m not a biology major, but I can still apply this in my normal life to make good decisions that will help me stay healthy and live my life better.”

Student feedback

At the end of each semester, Patterson asks students to write a reflection paper. “I’ll ask them, ‘What were some things or activities or concepts that you learned, that you felt like you understand better?’” he says. “It’s always gratifying to see that a lot of students pick up on the difference between hypo- and hyper- and isotonic solutions.” They tell him, “Yeah, we touched upon it when I was in high school, but I really didn’t get it, and I understand it a whole lot better.”

“I’m always surprised by that,” he says. “But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. That’s the whole point!”