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Piglets, Potato Salad, and Death: Liven Up Microbiology with Storytelling

To snag nonmajors’ attention in a stadium-sized class, Tom Gustad, MS, breaks up lectures with high-energy (and personal) stories.

Educator

Tom Gustad, MS

Instructor of Microbiology, North Dakota State University in Fargo

MS and BS in Microbiology, BS in Biology

Tom Gustad, MS, remembers what sparked his interest in microbiology. He was 10 years old and his parents had just bought a hog farm. When the sows had their first batch of piglets, the newborns immediately started dying from a type of diarrhea called scours.

The veterinarian explained the situation to the family: Bacteria living in the pigs’ straw and manure were the source of the problem. To solve the problem, they needed to clean the stalls every day. “That was the good news—cleaning the barn would solve the scours problem. But it was also the bad news,” Gustad jokes. “Because I would be the one doing it with a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork!”

That was Gustad’s first encounter with microbiology—and it is one of the many stories that he now tells his microbiology students at North Dakota State University in Fargo. The instructor has found that sharing stories—particularly ones that are personal, compelling, and perhaps with a little bit of gore or grossness—is a powerful way to engage students in a complex topic.

While the role of storyteller comes naturally to him—his father was known locally as a “joke-telling storyteller”—Gustad has honed his craft over the years.

Read on to find out a few of his suggestions for finding and telling course-centered tales, and to encounter a few more of his personal favorites.

Challenge

Students lack connection to microbiology

Introductory Microbiology fulfills a gen ed science requirement. “Thirty percent of my students think they have no connection to science,” says Gustad. This, coupled with the size of the class (150 to 250 students), meant that the instructor needed to put in extra effort to grab and hold their attention.

Innovation

Edutainment through enthusiastic, real-life storytelling

Gustad says he started telling stories in the classroom without thinking about it. “As I began to realize it was an effective way to capture or recapture students’ attention, my storytelling increased significantly,” he says. Since then, he has integrated stories throughout his curriculum in a mindful way.

See resources shared by Tom Gustad, MS

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Context

“You accumulate stories. I have stories dating back to my childhood relevant to microbiology. I’ve got stories from growing up on the farm, and stories from college that my professors shared with me, and stories from my five years as a microbiologist in a public health laboratory.”

— Tom Gustad, MS

Course: MICR 202 Introductory Microbiology

Course description: Study of the characteristics and importance of microorganisms with emphasis on their identification, control, and relationships to health and disease. Not for microbiology majors.

How to weave storytelling into complex science topics

As a “strong believer in the shortness of the human attention span,” Gustad lectures for no more than 15 to 20 minutes at a stretch before taking a break to do something else. And often, the “something else” is telling a story.

Here is his advice for sourcing amazing tales that will help teach your topic in ways that students remember.

Consider the stories you have accumulated over a lifetime

Many of the stories Gustad tells come from his own life. Along with family stories, he has insightful anecdotes from working as a lab technician for 20 years and rollicking tales from his 18 years as a teacher. “You accumulate stories,” he says. “I have stories dating back to my childhood that are relevant to microbiology.” (Case in point: the piglets with scours.) Some other places to look for great stories:

  • Try to recall stories that your professors shared in class, or ask colleagues if they are willing to share some of their stories with you. For example, Gustad’s virology professor told a story about rabies that he now shares with his students (making sure to credit the professor as the original source).
  • Look at current events and news items. Pay particular attention to ones that students will have heard about, such as the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
  • Turn to history—ancient, American, or international. Gustad notes, as an example, that the greatly outnumbered Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs due in part to a biological weapon (the smallpox virus) the conquistadors unknowingly possessed.
  • Dig into many types of media—books, articles, and videos. For instance, Gustad cites the remake of the War of the Worlds film with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning: The alien invaders, unlike the earthlings, had no “herd immunity” to earth’s microbes.
Gustad’s 3 Tales of Microbiology and Mayhem

Gustad’s story of the dying piglets at the start of this article is one that he uses to explain the concept of microbial growth. Here are a few other stories that he uses to illustrate complex topics in microbiology:

Aunt Edna’s poisoned potato salad

When teaching about microbial growth, Gustad also tells this tale: At a summer family reunion, Aunt Edna serves her delicious potato salad. Those who eat it early in the day are fine, but those who dive in after the dish sits for three hours in the summer heat are met with unpleasant cases of food poisoning. This sparks a discussion about conditions that encourage growth of bacteria.

Home canning and the “botulism beans”

As an active home canner, Gustad knows how to keep foods safe—but he steams the cans under pressure for 20 minutes, not the customary 15. He uses these stories to explain why: In 1924 in Oregon, an entire family of 12 died after eating canned beans that contained botulinus toxin. In 1931, all 13 attendees at a family gathering in North Dakota died after eating peas that had been canned improperly at home.

Disease resistance and his dad’s death

When teaching his unit on disease and epidemiology, Gustad tells about his father who, at age 71, acquired bacterial pneumonia. Less than 12 hours later, he was gone. Gustad explains that his father’s numerous predisposing factors contributed to the rapid progression of the disease.

With all of these stories, Gustad’s goal is to show students, “Hey, this is real!” This makes the information more relevant to them—and sometimes sparks them to consider science-related stories of their own.

Beyond teaching concepts, use stories to reinforce good behavior

To encourage students to be respectful, Gustad begins each semester with a story from his early teaching experience: Many years ago, he taught a class in which one of the students was a “chatty guy.” He talked so much he distracted the other students. About a third of the way through the semester, a young lady who regularly sat in front of Chatty Guy stood up in the middle of class. She turned around and let loose a 10-second f-bomb–laced tirade aimed directly at Chatty Guy, then sat down. For the remainder of the period, Gustad says, “You could hear a pin drop. The chatty guy didn’t say a word for the rest of the semester.” Gustad says this story makes his students very wary about talking during class.

Use PowerPoint notes to remind you when to begin

While Gustad notes that some of his stories are impromptu, most of them are linked directly to a particular lesson. When his impromptu stories work, he adds them into the curriculum, too.

Gustad likes to break up lecture every 15 to 20 minutes. To ensure that he remembers to tell a particular story, he actually puts a note to himself at the appropriate places on his PowerPoint slides.

Learn more about learning—and connect more with colleagues

Gustad has a few recommendations for teachers who would like to integrate storytelling into their lessons. First is to attend professional conferences for educators. One of his favorites is the series of Lilly Conferences on evidence-based teaching and learning. “I have gained so much valuable information at the conferences,” Gustad says. “I have attended several sessions devoted to the value of storytelling to enhance learning.”

Gustad also recommends the book The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain, by Terry Doyle and Todd D. Zakrajsek. “The book is a great resource for teaching techniques designed to optimize student learning and memory,” the instructor says. “I have attended several of Dr. Zakrajsek’s Lilly Conference presentations and always come away with new ideas and a new enthusiasm for teaching. Like myself, Dr. K (as he is often called) often incorporates storytelling and humor in his presentations.”

Over time, Gustad says he has learned that there is a difference between lecturing and good lecturing. “Good lecturing is done with passion, voice fluctuation, and movement,” he says. “I’m somewhat of an animated lecturer.”

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