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Justin A. Pruneski
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Heidelberg University
A Cure for Cancer? 

This flipped case study begins with a video in which a student reveals a family member's diagnosis with breast cancer and then considers the whirlwind of questions that arise in such a situation. Students are asked to relate to the main character and identify what questions they would have and what resources they could consult to seek information.  This sets the context for students to use websites and videos to investigate the nature of cancer, its causes, and progression. Students then learn about the major methods of cancer treatment (surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy), how they work, and the limitations and side effects of each. The case concludes by addressing the claim of one of the characters that there is a conspiracy to hide a cure for cancer. The case would be implemented near the middle of a high school, non-majors, or introductory biology course after discussion of basic cell biology and the cell cycle.

Aisles of Confusion: Making Sense of Modern Food Labels

In addition to traditional nutrition facts and ingredients, current food packaging frequently includes a wide variety of additional labels including: organic, antibiotic free, cage free/free range, gluten free, no added hormones, no MSG, non-GMO, and probiotic. Grocery shoppers are faced with many difficult decisions, especially weighing price against perceived health benefits. Looking at labels can influence consumers, but what the labels actually mean, who regulates them, and the effects of marketing strategies are not always fully understood, leading to misconceptions and misguided fears about food. This case study helps students understand the meaning of many modern food labels through in-class activities, group research, and student presentations in which small groups research one food label in depth and present their results to the class. The case concludes with a whole-class discussion on the variety of perspectives involved in food labeling, the causes and effects of high prices for labeled products, the ethics of current labelling practices, and other general themes. There is no answer key for this case, however a rubric, assignment guidelines, and a sample student report and infographic are included in the teaching notes.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: Sporulation in Bacillus subtilis

This interrupted case study introduces the topic of bacterial sporulation and cannibalism in Bacillus subtilis. The storyline follows Susan and her lab mates who are presenting research at a lab meeting when Susan falls asleep and dreams they are stranded on a deserted island. She makes connections between their fight for survival in the dream and the survival mechanisms of the bacteria they study in the lab. The benefits of sporulation under conditions of sustained stress are fairly obvious, but Susan's dream is used to examine the idea that sporulation may not always be beneficial and that bacteria would not want to commit to entering such a state in response to temporary stresses. Through the analysis of actual data from the scientific literature, students uncover a mechanism by which B. subtilis delays its commitment to sporulation by killing members of its own species to release nutrients (i.e., cannibalism). Originally developed for a general undergraduate microbiology course when discussing the structure and growth of prokaryotic cells, the case could also be used in an introductory biology course that emphasizes bacteria and data literacy.

What Should the Victor Do with the Vanquished?: Deciding the Fate of Smallpox

Smallpox, the worst infectious disease mankind has known, represents a major triumph as the first disease to be intentionally and completely removed from the human population. Although the disease was eradicated in 1980, the variola virus remains preserved in frozen stocks stored in two secure laboratories and there has been debate about whether these remaining stocks should be retained or destroyed. This case study introduces the history, biology, and bioethics of smallpox by having students decide to retain or destroy the smallpox stocks and generate questions about what they would need to know to make a more informed decision. Students explore the historical impact of the disease and why variola was such a dangerous pathogen. The case also details our successive victories against the disease, from the practice of variolation, to Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination, culminating with the worldwide eradication effort. This leads to discussion of why smallpox was a candidate for eradication and the challenges that had to be overcome. The case is suitable for high school biology, undergraduate courses in microbiology, or any course where the history of science/medicine or bioethics is emphasized.