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How to Use Real Headlines and Fake News to Make Science Relatable

When students asked, “Who cares? So what?” about her course material, this professor shared some fascinating, newsworthy stories.

Educator

Stephanie Martin, MS

Assistant Professor of Biology, Austin Community College, TX

MS in Evolutionary Biology, BA in Environmental Science

Ask yourself this: If you had the choice to 1) discuss CRISPR genetic ethics and fake news or 2) discuss a diploid organism that is heterozygous at a gene locus when its cells contain two different alleles, which one would you find more appealing?

Exactly. Now you understand the reason behind the success of the Who Cares, So What? approach used by Stephanie Martin, MS, an assistant professor of biology at Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas.

When Martin began teaching at ACC, she realized that her students came from diverse backgrounds—in age, life experience, and science fundamentals. What they often have in common is difficulty seeing how science relates to everyday life, leading them to sit through lectures wondering, “Who cares? So what?”

However, these students in particular need to learn to make those connections to be successful in their intended careers. “This course is a curriculum requirement for students who are interested in jobs in the health services field, such as nursing or physical therapy,” she explains. To help engage these students, Martin first implemented a flipped approach to her course (see “How Martin Flipped Her Bio Classroom”), which freed up about 15 to 20 minutes per session for in-class discussions. Then she found a novel way to make use of that “free time” by answering the questions “Who cares? So what?”

An overview of Who Cares, So What?

How Martin Flipped Her Bio Classroom

Martin videotaped her lectures for students to watch online as homework. The videos include an easy-to-follow PowerPoint presentation, and Martin also provides students with a worksheet to fill out with key discussion points while watching the online lecture. “In place of a long lecture, we do a short review of the lecture that I had assigned to them as homework,” Martin explains. Making this change led to more time—to the tune of 15 to 20 minutes per session—for in-class discussions.

Martin uses the time to discuss current news stories with science at their core. Think of it as the higher-education version of Brief but Spectacular on PBS News Hour, in which someone describes a spectacular idea, briefly.

Every medical advance in the news, every story about climate change or disaster relief, has science at its center, she explains. The news stories enable students to think of current events and their current studies as inextricably linked. The Who Cares, So What? (or WCSW, for short) exercise has been successful beyond Martin’s expectations in boosting engagement and understanding.

“WCSW helps students relate facts to process,” says Martin. “Working through a biological process—whether we are talking about gene expression, a DNA strand, or the transfer of proteins—we need [to] train students to ask why and how things happen.”

To share the “how” behind her WCSW approach, Martin offers some detailed tips below.

Challenge: Battling low engagement and lack of in-class discussion

The success rate for students (particularly nonmajors) taking biology courses at ACC can be low. Overall, Martin’s goal was to help students not only do the work needed to pass but actually absorb the material and be more engaged in class discussions. “One of the challenges of teaching biology is that you have a bunch of people who don’t know why or how biology affects them personally or will be of use in a future career,” says Martin.

Innovation: Using the day’s headlines to debate science

Martin started dedicating about 20 minutes of class time to a discussion of interesting, science-related stories making headlines in the news. She also uses the time to introduce the great scientists of our time and their creative use of science in the modern world, which she says can be inspiring. “Through WCSW, I can convince students that science is relevant to their lives,” she says.

Context

“One of the challenges of teaching biology is that you have a bunch of people who don’t know why or how biology affects them personally or will be of use in a future career. Through WCSW in particular, I can convince students that science is relevant to their lives.”

— Stephanie Martin, MS

Course: BIOL 1406 Cellular and Molecular Biology

Frequency: Twice a week for 80 minutes

Class size: 24

Course description: General Biology course designed for science majors and students with a strong science background who desire an in-depth approach to biological topics. An introduction to the physical and chemical organization of living organisms; cell structure, function, and metabolism; classical and molecular genetics; gene regulation and genetic engineering. Upon successful completion of this course, students can describe modern biotechnological techniques and their impacts on society.

See resources shared by Stephanie Martin, MS

See materials

Lesson: Who Cares, So What?

As mentioned, Martin’s fully flipped class allows roughly 20 minutes that she dedicates to her in-class discussion of science-related news, called Who Cares, So What? She slots the discussion between her lecture review (at the beginning of class) and an in-class activity (at the end of class).

“Studies show that most students can’t pay attention to a single task for longer than 15 to 20 minutes,” she notes. “The news items make for an exciting break that is energizing.” Using this low-stakes assignment (it is ungraded) has allowed Martin to break through the attention barrier.

Here, her suggestions for starting your own WCSW news-discussion sessions:

Start by making it personal

Martin begins the semester by talking about the importance of understanding how science is being applied in the real world. “We need to keep asking ourselves, ‘Why do we care about this?’” she says. “The more personally interested a student is, the more motivated they are to do the coursework.” Being made aware of this, says Martin, is how students start to become engaged in the lectures and labs.

For example, one student who had not been doing well in the class became very interested in genetics when he realized it could help him figure out whether he had inherited a learning disability. The student’s personal questions led him to give his best effort and boost his grade.

Bring in example topics at first

In the first few class meetings, Martin says it is best if the instructor brings in a few examples of science in the news to start the discussion. She finds topics through aggregated news sites, such as ScienceDaily and Science-Based Medicine, or on science podcasts, such as Radiotopia, Science Friday, and The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. After students get the idea of what Martin is looking for, they are encouraged to bring in stories that are personally relevant or interesting to them.

WCSW’s topics have been all over the map. There has been a discussion of the genetic inheritance of hair texture in humans (wavy hair, specifically), another on viral host exchanges of the HIV virus, and one on blood tonicity. Recently, a student asked her about CRISPR and the research that led to the first genetically altered babies.

Do not break up into groups

Studies published by the National Institutes of Health show that student talking leads to learning, and Martin loves that her students are engaging with science in this way. While some professors may split their classes into small groups to talk among themselves, Martin has the entire class talk together so that she does not need to worry that the students do not understand details or that they come to incorrect conclusions. That said, she tries not to let discussions bleed into class time devoted to texts, lectures, and labs.

“Often students get so engaged that I have to say we are out of time,” she says. “That’s when I usually follow up with links and more information about the topic we were discussing in class.”

Follow up on popular topics

When the news about CRISPR and “designer babies” was a topic in class, students were fascinated by the ethics as well as the way in which it was reported. Was this fake news or just hard to believe? “We had a great discussion in class,” Martin says—so great that she was compelled to follow up with more resources for her students later.

Some of her recent emails to students include these interesting notes and links:

  • CRISPR has been used to modify the DNA of human babies. The specific modification resulted in these babies having a natural HIV immunity. There is a great short piece about it here.
  • Yes! Hair texture in humans (wavy hair specifically) has an incomplete dominance inheritance pattern! Some more info on hair type and texture inheritance here!

Outcomes

After Martin began implementing WCSW, she found that even the shyest students started to speak up. By the end of the semester, nearly all of the students bring in lots of science reporting or topics of interest, then tell each other what they think is important about each story.

Even more important, it teaches students to think like scientists: “Whether we are talking about gene expression, a DNA strand, or transfer of proteins, we need to train students to ask why and how this happens,” Martin says.

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