To help students grasp abstract concepts—and how they relate to real people—biology professor Dr. Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito taps into the power of story.
Professor of Biology, Anderson University, in Anderson, IN
PhD in Molecular Genetics, MS in Molecular Genetics, BS in Biology
Biology is often taught in the abstract, says Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, PhD, a professor at Anderson University in Indiana: Pathogen A infects organ system B, leading to morbidity C. What that approach misses, she says, is the human element. Working with patients or doing research on human diseases is not only clinical but also emotional and spiritual, she explains.
With that in mind, Dr. Lyle-Ippolito works to make class material more engaging, memorable, and personal by incorporating stories from her own lived experience into her lessons and lectures on potentially dry topics, such as fatty acid synthesis or glycolysis. “Students learn more, and more deeply, when they have a reference point for abstract material—a hook to hang their knowledge on,” she says.
Fortunately, the personal and professional history of this professor provides plenty of interesting anecdotes: Before joining the faculty at Anderson University in Indiana, she worked as a virologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the VA Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio. Further, she and her husband, Daniel Ippolito (also a biology professor at AU) have five children—and plenty of stories spring from each of them. “When I teach about chicken pox, I talk about their experiences with chicken pox,” she says.
Lyle-Ippolito also brings the stories of others—from those in the media to the students themselves—into the classroom for consideration. “Learning science is not just vocabulary and equations,” she says. “There are people, lives, and motivations behind the research.” Below, she shares how she gets across this message and the course material.
“Learning science is not just vocabulary and equations. There are people, lives, and motivations behind the research.”— Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, PhD
Course: BIOL/CHEM 4210 Biochemistry
Course description: Introduction to fundamental principles of biochemistry. Lectures and project-oriented laboratories emphasize concepts of macromolecular structure, aspects of enzymology, and intermediary metabolism.
See resources shared by Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, PhDSee materials
Lyle-Ippolito’s best practices for making science personal
Lyle-Ippolito is intentional about her overarching goal: not simply to teach biology but to create a learning community with an emphasis on the virtues of gratitude and civil discourse. However, she eases into these more spiritual and emotional subjects, beginning with a lesson that is mostly fun and physiological. “On the first day of my biochemistry class, I give each student a chocolate bar,” she relates. “We eat chocolate, and my first lesson is on what is happening in your body as you eat that chocolate.” Here are the subsequent strategies she uses to delve more deeply into students’ minds and hearts with her personal stories.
Teach from the heart and soul
When she lectures on inherited mutations, Lyle-Ippolito begins with the story of her pregnancy with her second daughter. The child was diagnosed in utero with a fetal abnormality, and Lyle-Ippolito was advised to abort her. She declined. Today, her daughter is finishing her PhD at Vanderbilt University. It is an emotional story of faith affirmation, and Lyle-Ippolito believes the tale not only makes the topic of genetic diseases more concrete but also humanizes her as a professor. “Students often don’t seem to realize that you have a life outside the classroom,” she says. “I teach at a Christian college, so I can talk about faith, which is a big part of who I am.”
Put topics into current social context
To add relevance and social justice to her section on infectious disease, Lyle-Ippolito incorporates “social integration” days—which consider the incorporation of “newcomers” into one’s society, and the ramifications of that. For example, when an individual was stopped at the US border when trying to enter the country while infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis, he sued. “We ask ourselves, ‘Where do the infected individual’s civil rights begin and end?’” Lyle-Ippolito says.
Show empathy and caring for students
Lyle-Ippolito shows that she cares about her students’ well-being by peppering her lectures with advice on sleep, exercise, and healthy eating. Just before the Thanksgiving vacation, she tells students to expect an extra-credit quiz on the number of different vegetables they have eaten during their break. “They get half a point for each vegetable,” Lyle-Ippolito says. “In my nonmajors biology class, I have students keep a 24-hour food log, and the number of students who eat no vegetables or fruits at all is amazing—it’s the vast majority,” she says. “One student listed [vegetables as] pickles on a fast-food chicken sandwich.”
Help students find their own story of gratitude
Nursing students in Lyle-Ippolito’s Infections and Disease class are shown a photo of a sick child; she then asks them to think about who cared for them when they were sick children—specifically, the person who cleaned up their vomit. She then asks that they call that individual to thank them—and asks what each party said. “I have them write it on a 3 x 5 card,” she says. “If [the recipient’s] answer is gruff, then maybe the student hasn’t been thankful enough in his or her life.” She hopes that this may inspire future thankfulness and, perhaps, more frequent phone calls to home.
Demonstrate the art of civil debate
Finally, Lyle-Ippolito wants students to understand that everyone has a different lived experience, different stories, and different opinions—and that is OK. “Once [my husband] and I took opposite sides of a topic to debate in the Honors class,” Lyle-Ippolito says. “After class, I got numerous emails from students asking me if my marriage was all right. We came in the next day for class and had a really great discussion on how you can love each other and still disagree. In fact, we told them that you will disagree with your spouse on some major things, and you need to be able to discuss them civilly and either work to a solution or agree to disagree.”
Lyle-Ippolito says that this example showed students that respectful debate is a critical skill for staying married, and it also showed the importance of civil discourse overall—something that can serve students well, wherever life leads them.
Her approach, Lyle-Ippolito has found, appeals to today’s generation of traditional college students. “When I began teaching in 2000, students could hear a lecture filled with abstract content, take it home, internalize it, and do well on exams,” she says. “I don’t know why, but that’s harder for students today. For the material to stick, they need to know what it means—and why it matters to them.” By using these approaches, she shows students the personal relevance of biology and health issues, but she also helps them see why those issues are relevant to other people, thereby widening their world and, she hopes, opening their hearts.