Teacher Profiles

A column by Eric Ribbens, Professor of Biology at Western Illinois University, e-ribbens@wiu.edu.

Featured Case Teacher

BurdettBarbra Burdett

Assistant Professor
Lincoln College
Lincoln, Illinois

Barbra Burdett is an assistant professor at Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois, where she teaches courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, and anthropology. She uses case studies extensively in her teaching, and her students regularly comment that they especially enjoy the "stories" in her classes.

Barbra is a former student of mine and has a somewhat different history of learning about cases than many of us: "I got started with cases in 2001 during an ethnobotany course with Professor Eric Ribbens. I was fortunate to have been taught how to create cases and went on to develop my own in the classroom with Dr. Ribbens and another student in the course, Angela Green. I was fascinated and involved with what we were doing and spent hours finding information for the case."

Titled Is Guaiacum Sanctum Effective Against Arthritis?, the case study was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Case Collection of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) and was also selected for inclusion in the recently published book, Science Stories You Can Count On: 51 Case Studies with Quantitative Reasoning in Biology, edited by Kipp Herreid, Nancy Schiller, and Ky Herreid. The case follows the story of "Dr. Beth Tonany," a tropical population ecologist studying an unsual tree in the tropical forest of Central America which the local Ticos use for medicinal purposes. The case teaches students about the process of screening and testing the medicinal value of plants identified as having potential health benefits, and gives them practice designing experiments and analyzing data.

Barbra decided that the general approach of a case was a good way to teach. "Dr. Ribbens' class taught me to let my students stand beside me when they learn something. Cases set a pattern for bringing interest in learning back into the classroom." Barbra has developed additional cases for her courses, including some written with students; this process of co-authopring a case study with students can be a very powerful teaching technique. In closing, Barbra described herself as a "big believer" in cases. "My students enjoy them, and I think they learn more with cases."

RendlemanTracy Rendleman

Science Teacher
Edgerton High School
Edgerton, Ohio

Tracy Rendleman has been teaching for nine years now and has taught with case studies since the start. Currently she teaches high school science in the small town of Edgerton in northwestern Ohio. "I use cases so that my students can connect a face or a true story to what they are learning about. I also want them to see that not everything is black and white in science. It can come across that way in a textbook, but so often the real experience of science is anything but cut and dry. I want them to experience the human side of things and see how these ideas impact lives.  I like to have my students active in their learning and using case studies is a great way to achieve that goal."

Tracy's favorite case is an interrupted case study on the symptoms of heart attacks in women.  "I really like this case because it doesn't give the students all the answers up front.  I also have a case study I use in the muscle chapter about new advancements in muscle repair for soldiers coming home from war. It connects science to current events and gets the kids excited about the potential that science and technology offers to society."

Recently Tracy contacted me with some questions about my case study, Chemical Eric, after teaching it. This gave me an opportunity to ask her students some questions about the case and, more generally, about learning with cases. Here are extracts from some of their comments:

  • "I loved the mystery/puzzle aspect. It really captured my attention and I loved trying to figure it out."
  • "I liked going through the questions with the class after we individually answered them. I never got bored once, and I feel like other students should study cases.  They won't be sorry!"
  • "I will remember this case study for a long time!"
  • "I learn better this way, and I believe we should do more of them."
  • "I like the way the case made me see what I just learned about the pituitary gland in a new way."
  • "It was challenging but a good kind of challenging since we are working our brains beyond what we usually think."
  • "Throughout the case study I wanted to keep reading, but at the same time I was thinking, what if this happened to me?"

I am impressed that Tracy's students zeroed in on an aspect of the case that I think is important. Clearly, they liked studying cases, the cases held their attention, and they expected to remember them.

I asked Tracy what advice she had for other teachers. "I would encourage teachers to try a case study. Make sure to read through all of it before hand and decide what the most important things are that you want students to get out of the experience. As with anything, the more you do, the easier it gets. Case studies give the students an advantage because they help them to apply their knowledge to real life situations. It will help them to connect the material and to better remember what they have learned."

latourelleJustin F. Shaffer

Department of Developmental and Cell Biology
University of California, Irvine

Justin Shaffer is a tenure-track lecturer in the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California-Irvine. Courses he teaches with cases include human anatomy, comparative anatomy, majors introductory biology, and a non-majors human development class called "From Conception to Birth."

"I've been teaching with cases for about two years. I started using cases because I saw how incredibly useful they are to get students engaged during class. I found this out when I was teaching introductory biology for non-majors for the first time at another university. My first few lessons went okay, nothing special, but when it came time to teach about proteins, I decided to use a small case study about sickle cell anemia. Once I was done with the introduction, I saw the students' attitudes change; they were more engaged and interested, and the rest of the lesson went really well. I was hooked and I've been using cases ever since."

"I use cases because: (1) they provide a real-world context to engage students in the course material, (2) they provide a wonderful narrative to each day of class, and (3) I think that they help my students learn the material better.  My students would tell you that they really enjoy the real-world connections that I make in class through the use of cases (many comments on my student evaluations have said as much). I primarily teach large classes (100-400+ students), so I tend to use "clicker cases" in those courses. However, I also have used more traditional paper-and-pencil interrupted case studies in smaller courses (less than 50 students). No matter the class size or the type of case, I use them because of the real-world context that students hopefully can relate to, which helps them to engage with the material in class and keeps them interested."

Justin has recently published a case study on the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) website which has generated a great deal of interest among teachers who use the site.  Titled "The Sad But True Case of Earl Washington," the case explores the use of DNA technology to exonerate or incriminate suspects in criminal trials.  The case is a "clicker case."  It makes use of a PowerPoint format that drives the case story forward alternating with slides that present technical information as well as clicker questions that assess student understanding of that information. Justin is a big fan of clickers, which he uses to teach classes of up to 400 students.  "I like the pencil-and-paper interrupted cases, but in big classes they don't work well. Clickers are a good way to collect student feedback and keep students engaged in the class."

Asked what his favorite case is, Justine readily replied, "Agony and Ecstasy," a clicker case by Norris Armstrong from the University of Georgia, also on the NCCSTS website. "I love the real-world tie-in with Ecstasy and drug use, how the case works students through the topic of diffusion and osmosis, and the way it uses technology - the Mouse Party video is always a HUGE hit with my students!  I have used the case several times and it always goes smoothly. I couldn't recommend it more highly."

In terms of advice for people who want to teach with cases, Justin had these words of wisdom:  "Just like anything else in life, try them out!  If you have a topic that you normally teach that you want to spice up or make changes to, go to the NCCSTS website and search for that topic.  If you find a case, it might not be exactly what you are looking for, but take the parts that do fit and give them a go. Make sure to evaluate the use of the case too. Have a colleague come and observe or ask students to fill out a short questionnaire afterwards. This will give you more evidence on which to base your future use of cases."

"To students, I would say:  Take the cases seriously and enjoy the experience. While you might think that using cases is taking away from class time where more information could be crammed in, cases are extremely important because they are helping you connect the topic at hand to the real world and they also help you develop critical thinking, evaluation, and teamwork skills."

latourelleSandra M. Latourelle

Biology Department and Education Department
SUNY Plattsburgh

Sandy Latourelle teaches General Biology 101 for majors; General Genetics 305; Epidemiology; Socioeconomic and Bioethical Issues; Bioethical Issues in Today's Society; Biological Concepts through Case Studies; and Ethical and Social Considerations in Biology.  She has been teaching with cases since the late 1990s, and attended one of the teacher-training workshops offered each year by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) in Buffalo, NY. She regularly uses cases from the NCCSTS collection, and noted that "the case studies in the collection are really good!"

Sandy uses cases because they engage her students.  She shared some of her students' comments about the classes she teaches using a case study approach: 

"I feel that I have grown significantly as a result of the last 16 weeks being engaged in this class. I have learned a great amount about the bioethics involved in current medical practice." 

"I understand that we must look at everyone's point of view and consider why they might have these opinions. I have learned that we must put ourselves in others' shoes in order to understand how they form their opinions. I feel that learning about values has helped me understand my own values in life."

"This course has been a great asset. From help with my grammar skills and delivery of my message, to my critical thinking skills, this class has helped me grow as a student. This class is more relaxed than my other classes. In my other classes, there is a straight-forward answer, while in this class I have the chance to be free and express my thoughts and opinions."

For the most part, Sandy uses cases in her online topics courses. In her Biological Concepts through Case Studies course, she uses nothing but case studies. She reports that her students love the case studies, and that the cases help students synthesize what they are learning in the course. Sandy in particular likes the way that cases make students think through the material instead of simply typing in rote responses.

What is her favorite case?  "I really like the one on the banana plantation [Ecotourism: Who Benefits? by Linda Markowitz and Catherine Dana Santanello]. "I even have my students do in-dorm research with this one. They grapple with multiple stakeholders, and are fascinated by the interplay between ethylene and fruit ripening."

What is her advice for people who want to teach with cases?  "Use them!  It is really an eye-opener. These cases engage, demand research, foster critical thinking -- and the instructor learns as well as the student!"

StephensJohn Petersen

Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology Program Chair

Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio

Dr. John Petersen teaches courses at Oberlin in Environmental Studies, Systems Ecology, Systems Modeling, and Ecological Communication. "I took a case study teaching workshop in Buffalo around 2000, and have been using cases ever since. I am convinced of their pedagogical value. They engage students in active learning, reflection, and perspective taking."

He particularly likes using cases in introductory courses to compel students to explore different perspectives. "I assign each student a specific character representing a distinct perspective on the case scenario. Each student is provided with a different set of materials associated with their character. When they arrive in class on the day we do the case, I expect them to speak in the voice of that character. While they are playing the character, I ask them to exercise methodological belief: that is, to allow themselves to at least temporarily accept the legitimacy of their character's position."

What does methodological belief do for your students? "This really helps them to more deeply understand and empathize with different positions on complex environmental issues. Note that I'm not asking them to necessarily agree with a position, only to temporarily accept it. This is particularly useful in a context in which many of the students in this class really want to adopt what might be considered a politically correct view. I know from course evaluations that students gain a great deal from the experience. Students are generally good at the traditional academic approach of critique--finding the flaws in a particular position. It generally takes a bit of coaching to get them to open themselves up to perspectives that they might be inclined to reject. I tell them that, even if they are ultimately in opposition to a certain position, they are going to be in a much better position to argue against it and in  a way that is compelling if they have first allowed themselves to deeply understand how and why someone might hold that position."

This intrigued me. I asked him how the students react. "Students generally want to hold a 'correct' position. It's not easy for them to empathize with people holding different or (what they perceive as) incorrect views. I don't want them to think all positions are equally valid. Rather, my goal is to get them to think about their own assumptions and how to respond to different assumptions or conclusions."

Exploring different perspectives is not the only way John uses cases. "The way I use cases in Systems Ecology is very different. Here the course is really modeled on the scientific process. I ask them to form hypotheses on a topic, then provide them with published data (or sometimes data from my own work), which I ask them to interpret in light of their hypotheses and draw conclusions." 

What is your favorite case, and why?  "This varies from year to year and class to class. I have a case that I developed for Systems Ecology designed (among other things) to help students understand the nitrogen cycle. The case uses data from an on-site wetland-based wastewater treament system that we have in our Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin. The students generally come out of it with a pretty solid understanding of the different microbial processes involved--who does what, why they do it and why the way our society messes with nitrogen is not very sustainable."

I asked him what makes a good case. "A good case is relevant to the class topic and relevant to the students. It is also important that the case has unexpected features that challenge preconceptions. And of course a case should present a problem or challenge for the students to grapple with."

What advice do you have for people who want to teach with cases?  "I know that for me the confidence to do case studies came from the workshop I took with Kipp Herreid. Learning from a master teacher made it pretty easy to integrate case studies into my teaching. For students, I would say, give yourself over to the case--the deeper you allow yourself to get into it, the more you will learn."

John's cases include two published on our website:  Cooling Off a Warming Plant: Analyzing the Tradeoffs in Policies for Climate Change (with Md Rumi Shammin and Jordam Suter) and First in Flight, Last in Wetlands Preservation? (with Nancy London).

StephensPhil Stephens


Biology Department
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Dr. Phil Stephens is a professor in the Biology Department at Villanova University. He has been teaching with cases at some level for 20 years now, and participated in one of the training workshops offered by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) in Buffalo in 2004. He has published a dozen cases in the NCCSTS collection, all dealing with various aspects of animal physiology [among these, the top three most popular this past year in terms of downloads from the NCCSTS site are Anyone Who Had a Heart, Driving Can Be Dangerous to Your Health and The Ice Hockey Injury], and has led workshops about teaching with cases. He teaches animal physiology, neurobiology, human physiology, and alien physiology, and uses cases extensively.

"I run a case for the first hour of every weekly lab session. This leaves about two hours for lab. It's a good way to break up the three-hour period. I always use interrupted cases, where the students receive information a section at a time to work on, and I give students white boards for them to record their notes and ideas. I strive to make cases fun and non-confrontational, and try to involve everyone in class. I grade the efforts put out by each group. Cases allow me to easily identify the leaders and the followers, which I feel is very important when I am asked to write letters of recommendation." His lab sessions usually have about 18 students, who are typically sophomores or juniors. I use cases in combination with team-based learning. "Cases are excellent vehicles for students to communicate with one another, share ideas and knowledge, and use their higher order thinking skills. Feedback shows that the majority of my students enjoy case activities; of course, some see them as a waste of time."

Phil is a strong believer in the regular use of cases. "My students quickly learn if they are not up to speed on the topics, and many study more for the case component than for the lab itself. In my neurobiology class, groups of students write a case rather than a term paper. I give feedback on the initial case, students rewrite and then present to the class and submit their final written version. The quality varies between groups, but I have published some of the best cases with the students [see, for example, The Tired Swimmer], some of whom have gone on to become teachers."

Yes, one of his classes is Alien Physiology. "It's a capstone class, and my favorite. We spend the entire semester discussing possible adaptations to an alien environment that I invent. For example, last semester we examined an environment without oxygen that has regular sandstorms. We do some cases in this class, and students gradually realize that in physiology everything is affected by each design component." 

What is your favorite case?  "I have two:  Case in Point: From Active Learning to the Job Market by Mary Walczak and Juliette Lantz is the first case I present in my Animal Physiology course. I use the jigsaw method to have students extract pertinent information, present to their peers, and discuss qualifications. At the end, I encourage my students to think about their own resumes and whether they would be competitive in the job market in this case. My other favorite case is Mom Always Liked You Best by Kipp Herreid. It's the second case I use in my Animal Physiology course. I love this case because it gets students thinking about data analysis and experimental design."

What advice do you have for people who want to teach with cases?  "Start slowly and do one or two cases in the semester. Prepare weeks in advance and do not expect too much. If you go to the training provided by the NCCSTS, you will have learned from the best and they make it look easy! Running an effective case is more difficult than it looks, so don't expect instant success. Listen, laugh, and be patient. Reach out to case-friends and case-colleagues for advice and for help. Ask them to sit in on the case, even use a video conference if you are from a distant school."

deemTracy Deem

Assistant Professor

Biology Department
Bridgewater College
Bridgewater, Virginia

Dr. Tracy Deem is an assistant professor in the Biology Department at Bridgewater College in Virginia. She uses cases in all of her courses, including the introductory course for biology majors and the introductory course for health and human sciences that she teaches. She added that she is looking forward to using cases this spring in her immunology classes.

When I asked her how she got into teaching with cases, she replied: "I'm one of those scientists, like probably most of us, who started out teaching how I was taught, which was mostly by lecture. However, due to requests from students, every year I tried to increase the amount of group work ("activities") done by students in class. When I first started reading literature on active learning, I was totally blown away. I was trained as a biomedical research scientist and had no idea that this other world existed out there. I felt like I had been doing my students a disservice by not teaching them using active learning, so I immediately switched to all team-based learning. I started using case studies because I was looking for ways to make anatomy and physiology more interactive, and I stumbled upon the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science."

"I use cases in combination with team-based learning. I divide students into permament groups of five based on several factors, including whether or not they are in a sport that semester, what their math placement test score was, gender, etc. I usually end up with eight to nine groups per class. Usually about 60 to 70% of my activities are case studies."

She added, "If you want to use cases in your classroom, you have to teach students how to approach the case (trust me, I still struggle with this!), especially if the students are new to college. If you give them an open-ended question and expect them to discuss it for 15 to 20 minutes, it will never happen in the beginning. They will finish their discussion in two minutes and then talk about the football game the rest of the time. To solve this problem, make a bulleted list of the things you want your students to discuss. This was one of the best pieces of advice I got from someone who uses case studies in her classroom." 

I asked Tracy what her favorite case was, and why. She told me that her favorite cases are cases that teach students about the nature of science. "I really like the ones that have them work with real data, like Tragic Choices: Autism, Measles, and the MMR Vaccine by Matthew Rowe, Decoding the Flu by Norris Armstrong, Mom Always Liked You Best by Kipp Herreid, and Love Potion #10 by Susan Holt. I also like the ones that pull together lots of information like The 2000-Meter Row by Nathan Strong."

I thought Tracy's advice for students in classes using cases were especially good: "If you are a student learning with case studies, you have to be prepared to learn. You have to do more reading so you can come to class prepared to apply the information to the scenario in the case. Reading does not mean you glance at it while you text friends or watch TV. You have to approach the material like you are going to have a test on it the next class period or even better you have to teach it to someone! If you spend all class period trying to understand what the case study is asking, you will not do well. While in class, this is your chance to really ask questions of your group members and your instructor. If your instructor has given you 30 minutes to answer a question or work on a problem, then it should take you the entire time to do so adequately."

genereuxAnnie Prud'homme-Genereux

Founding Professor of Life Sciences and Associate VP of Research and Administration
Quest University
Squamish, British Columbia, Canada

Since 2006, Annie Prud'homme-Genereux has been a Founding Professor of Life Sciences at Quest University, and in 2011 was appointed Associate Vice-President of Research and Administration.  Quest University is located one hour north of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.  Nearly all of her courses use cases, including some team-taught courses.

While she has always been interested in various forms of active learning, in May 2008 she attended the Summer Case Study Teaching in Science Workshop in Buffalo.  "I loved the approach - it resonated with my teaching philosophy.  This occurred just as I was in the middle of developing more than 12 new courses, so I could immediately apply what I had learned.  And it turns out I enjoy writing cases, so I wrote a lot."  Annie has now published 12 cases in our case collection.

Notably, she has expected her students to write cases.  "When I was planning my molecular biology course, I reasoned that a lot of the skills I was exercising in writing case studies (researching skills, critical analysis of sources, synthesizing information, communication skills, etc.) were precisely the ones that I hope students would get out of their undergraduate education.  So I devised an assignment where students developed their own case study throughout the course (i.e., over the one-month interval for their block scheduling, students went from knowing nothing about their chosen research topic to writing a case study about it).  There were 14 students in my class, and I thought maybe some of them would be good enough for submission to the NCCSTS case databases.  We ended up submitting three!"

She also has had Honor's students write cases.  "That's what I talked about at the Fall Conference on Case Study Teaching in Science this past year and at the NABT conference last month in Dallas, and I have written about it in an upcoming article in the Journal of College Science Teaching." 

Clearly, the students have been deeply affected by the process of developing a case.  As her student Dustin Eno (author of An Infectious Cure) wrote:  "There is no better motivator than taking pride in something.  Starting from early in the editing process, my case was used as a teaching tool in biology classes at my school.  Students would come up to me in the cafeteria with questions, comments, or just general excitement.  These interactions helped to further solidify the material in my mind as I routinely got to talk about details that were not in the case, and it also motivated me to work to make it the best that I could."

Annie's favorite case in the NCCSTS collection is Giving Birth to Someone Else's Children by Jessica Hutchison of Alfred State University.  "I love it because it exemplifies everything that a case study should be:  it's engaging, there is a mystery that tickles the imagination to solve, it's based on (Ripley's-Believe-it-or-Not-type) facts, it's short, and it lets students hypothesize.  It's also just the right level of difficulty for my students..... I just love it, because it's fun and it's also paradigm-shifting for many students who thought they knew biology."

I asked her what advice she has for faculty who want to teach with cases and for students in a class using cases. 

For faculty:  "The best advice is to not be afraid and just do it.  You can prepare to death, have anxiety attacks, discuss it with colleagues, but it's not until you try it for yourself in the classroom that you will learn how this technique can work for you.  Don't be afraid - students are surprisingly forgiving about us experimenting with teaching techniques, so long as you explain to them why you are doing it." 

For students:  "Learning with cases forces you to pick up life-long learning techniques, it practices skills that you will use in the workplace (e.g., learning to negotiate ideas with colleagues you might not agree with).  It's not simply about learning information that you regurgitate on an exam and forget the next day.  It can be uncomfortable - the learning is less structured, you will have to figure out things on your own, you will have to navigate socially delicate situations - but it's only from this sort of tension that you will truly grow."

ramirezMary Anne Rea-Ramirez

Professor, Health Sciences and Nursing Dean, Richmond Campus
Stratford University
Glen Allen, Virginia

Mary Anne Rea-Ramirez is a Professor of Health Sciences and Nursing and the Richmond Campus Dean at Stratford University in Glen Allen, Virginia.  She has been there for two years.  While most of her professional duties are centered on her position as dean, she also has taught classes in anatomy and physiology, healthcare administration, and women's healthcare and midwifery.

"At Stratford, we have developed an extensive program around case studies. Students engage in learning activities prior to coming to class so that they have developed basic content understanding.  When they come to class, they are challenged with cases.  Through the cases, they further develop their understanding of content and apply it to the case scenario.  Students work in teams to socially construct understanding.  My role is to facilitate, asking open-ended questions, probing, encouraging students to go deeper."

I asked her what reactions her students have had to learning with case studies.  She clearly believes that her students benefit from cases, and that they generally enjoy them.  "Students have to learn to facilitate each other's learning within the team.  This means training them, often through modeling, to ask open-ended questions and to probe and challenge one another's ideas.  Giving them a card with prompts often helps.  Laying down some ground rules also might help though I don't believe in assigning roles but rather allowing this to emerge.  Students also learn to use peer pressure to get team members to do their pre-class activities so they come prepared."

When I asked her if she had a favorite case, she said Treating Ed, a case about the issues dealing with a serious health situation from the perspective of family decision-makers.  "This case can be used for a variety of classes and issues from strictly medical to ethical.  I have used it as the basis of a risk analysis on hospital protocol, and to teach HIPPA and end-of-life issues.  It is open ended enough to allow for adaptation and rich enough to really engage students."

In our conversation, she further emphasized the importance of clear goals for a case.  "I like the National Center for Case Study in Science collection because the documentation is well done and each case has clearly defined goals.  They make it easy to pick and choose between cases."

What advice does she have for new case teachers?  "They need to learn how cases enhance outcomes first.  I was fortunate to be immersed in case-based teaching when I was a professor at Hampshire College.  Hampshire is heavily oriented around teaching with cases.  I saw the benefit and have always been a bit of a risk taker when it comes to education.  I think that helps.  Going to a workshop is definitely helpful because you learn how to develop as well as teach with cases.  But the most important thing is to jump in and do it - and be flexible enough to adjust and try something new if it doesn't work out exactly as you planned.  Sometimes things go great from the beginning, but most often instructors and students need to learn to use cases and become comfortable with ambiguity.  For those who are not natural risk-takers, it can be helpful to be mentored by a person who is comfortable using cases.  I also often find that co-teaching helps."

In closing, I asker her about her vision for the future of case teaching at her university.  "At Stratford, we have instituted a team-based approach to teaching through the arts and sciences, culinary, and health sciences departments.  All faculty are trained to use an approach that emphasizes cases or problems.  I want to see more integration of cases between different classes.  We also need more cases, for example in our culinary program.  More cases in general would help ... in epidemiology, medical ethics, kinesiology, and training adminstrators." 

My reply:  "Well?  When are you going to write a case?"  Mary Anne laughed.  "I need more time!"

diamondTheresa Diamond

High School Teacher
Upper Darby High School
Drexel, Pennsylvania

Theresa Diamond has been teaching anatomy and physiology at Upper Darby High School in Drexel, Pennsylvania, for 11 years.  In particular, she teaches the Honors Anatomy & Physiology course designed for students (mostly juniors and seniors) who have already taken high school biology. I asked Theresa how she became involved with using case studies to teach.  "Cases have been a part of the Honors Anatomy & Physiology (HAP) curriculum since the course's inception four years ago.  I Googled 'case studies' along with a topic name and kept winding up at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science website."  She added, "I really rely on their teacher notes.  When I was first using the cases, the teaching notes were lifesavers.  I read them with a fine-toothed comb, and studied all of the answers."

"I approach the cases in a variety of ways.  Sometimes I have students read sections of the case independently, then ask them to work together to answer the questions.  Sometimes we answer the questions as an entire class."  She added that the case study Chemical Eric is a big part of her assessment of the endocrine system.  I asked her how she uses that case for assessment and she told me that she has adapted it slightly into a test.  Students have to work with a partner to answer questions about Eric's medical problems.  She laughed:  "I want them to identify possibilities; they want to find the one right answer, so they hate the test."

Theresa is a pretty heavy case user, teaching about eight to 10 cases a semester.  "If I can find a case that fits, I use it, because they work.  The kids are engaged."  I asked her what she finds difficult about locating suitable cases for a high school class.  She mentioned the challenge of finding the reference materials cited in some of the cases.  "Most of my access to reference materials is online, so if it is only available as a hard copy, I can't get it."

Clearly she has become a believer in cases. "The primary reason I use case studies is to provide a high interest way for my students to engage in the curriculum and to provide them with critical thinking opportunities.  My students would probably tell you that they love working in small groups to complete case studies."

What is her favorite case?  "My favorite case has changed this year based on student feedback.  The students loved doing Newsflash! Transport Proteins on Strike!  One student said he wished there was a 'play' for every chapter, as the script helped him understand cell membrane structure and function better than many recently learned topics.  The students really got into their parts for that case!  I also greatly appreciate the case The Evolution of Human Skin Color for its gradual revealing of ideas in the same manner that scientists' thinking changes over time."

Finally, I asked her if she had any advice for people who want to teach with cases.  "My advice for other teachers is to begin small.  I would have been overwhelmed if I had tried to overdo case studies in the beginning.  They take quite some time to grade and to prepare the first time you teach with them.  For students, I would advise them to read the case study and questions carefully and answer the questions as fully as possible."

Matthew Johll

Matthew Johll

Professor of Chemistry
Illinois Valley Community College
Oglesby, Illinois

Matthew Johll is a professor of chemistry at Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC).  He has been at IVCC for nine years, where he teaches General Chemistry I and II as well as an introductory (liberal arts) chemistry course.  He uses cases in all of his courses.  "I have been using case studies for 11 years.  I got started using them when my students became fixated on a new TV show called CSI and kept coming to class with questions about the science of the show.  I saw a natural curiosity in the students and realized that using real-life examples was a powerful tool for learning.  I love to use cases because they represent the ultimate use of the material we are covering in lecture--the application of knowledge to solve a problem or understand a natural phenomenon.  Traditional lecture provides students with many tools.  However, cases show students how to use those tools." 

Matthew attended one of Kipp Herreid's workshops about six years ago, and while he had stumbled on the case study method independently before that, he found the workshop very useful.  "It was interesting to learn about all the various ways cases can be taught."  I asked him what makes a good case and he immediately replied: "A really compelling story.  I always insist that the scenario be real, not just a theoretical scenario."

I asked him what his students would say about his teaching.  "That I love telling stories!  I start each chapter using an interrupted case study.  During the course of covering the chapter, the students cover the information necessary to understand the case.  I then take the time at the end of the chapter to go back to the case study and explore the finale of the case."  His students quickly learn the importance of the case.  "By the fourth chapter, I don't even have to tell them to read the case.  If I walk into the classroom and ask someone to summarize the case, the room is filled with students reading ahead to find out more."  In his opinion, cases grip students and make chemistry more accessible and interesting.

What advice does he have about using cases in classes?  "First I would reassure new case teachers that cases can be introduced into a class without using a significant amount of time and that they will quickly see how well students respond to cases.  Students want to know why the material they are learning is relevant to their education; case studies serve to illustrate those applications and also excite students about the material.  I would also encourage faculty to attend a workshop from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.  For students, I encourage them to further explore the topics and read more information about the case studies and similar applications.  One of my goals is to help students start to realize all of the applications of science in their daily lives.  The internet has a wealth of information waiting for curious minds to explore, and it is amazing how many times I have had students come up to me and ask if I have heard about a case they just discovered online."

Matthew's favorite case is one he recently wrote. "I call it Isotope Itinerary, and it is currently one of my favorites.  The case centers on the use of stable isotope analysis to identify the remains of a murder victim found in Dublin who originated from Kenya.  Without the use of isotopes, this case most likely would not have been solved.  This opens then into a discussion of other uses of stable isotope analysis.  I like this case because it takes a very basic (and dry) topic and ignites the students' curiosity."

Matthew's cases have all been produced for textbooks he has written for the introductory (liberal arts) chemistry course that he teaches.  The first book, Investigating Chemistry: Introductory Chemistry from a Forensic Science Perspective, is in its 3rd edition.  "Every chapter opens with a case study crime that sets the stage for the content of the chapter.  The chapters themselves contain the standard topics covered in any introductory course.  Each chapter concludes with a case study finale, which reviews how the crime was solved using information from the chapter.  I also sprinkle a few forensic science-themed examples throughout the chapter where applicable.  Because chemistry is a fundamental and central science, I have been able to find real crimes for every chapter.  Unfortunately, as crime never ends, I have a continual supply of cases to write about.  I find the cases in newspapers, court documents, professional journals, and contacts I have developed with forensic scientists and detectives."

His second textbook, Exploring Chemistry: Connections to Everyday Life, just came out in 1st edition this spring.  This book takes a more global look at applications of chemistry rather than just focusing on forensic science.  Cases in this book range from the chemistry of brownies and muffins to chemotherapy drugs to biodegradable polymers to genetically modified foods.  Both books are available from W.H. Freeman and, while targeted for an introductory course, Matthew mentioned that other chemistry teachers have used his books simply for the cases.

Linda CarozzaLinda Carozza

Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Science and Disorders
St. John's University – Notre Dame Division
Staten Island, New York

Linda Carozza is an assistant professor of speech pathology at Saint John’s University in New York. She uses cases in her upper-level Speech Pathology I and II courses and her seminar in speech pathology.   She also has used cases in an internship course and a course about language-based learning disabilities.

“I had a colleague at my previous position who taught phonetics, a very dry subject where you have to learn to transcribe speech sounds.   But Susan [Behrens] was a wonderful teacher.   She introduced me to Kipp [Herreid], and we both took one of Kipp’s workshops, and then wrote a case together.” Susan and Linda’s case, Emily and Dr. Haskins, is available in the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science’s collection of cases.

Interestingly, Linda expects her internship students to write a case as part of their “senior project.”   Students were excited to share what they’ve learned. Linda says her students like cases, and find them a good way to break up the lecture format.   Her students also work extensively with patients, and she has found cases a good way to summarize, evaluate, and let students creatively explore treatment options in a way that they can’t with actual patients.

Linda attended Kipp's "Case Studies in Science" summer workshop in 2006, and loved it.   Actually, I think she really liked Kipp’s approach:   “He’s such a vital teacher.   After that workshop I went back to my classroom, set up a flip chart and markers, and people were paying attention to me like they did to Kipp.”   She thinks that if possible everyone should take one of Kipp’s workshops; she also noted that there is a lot of material about teaching cases on the Center’s website at http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/teaching/publications/, including information about Kipp and Nancy Schiller’s recently published book of case studies (co-edited with Ky Herreid) to help develop students’ critical thinking skills.

What has she found to be difficult about teaching with cases?   “It’s hard to grade the cases that the students write.   I am always thinking about enhancing my tools of evaluation via rubrics for case study.”   The process of developing a case is a great learning tool, so simply evaluating their output doesn’t capture the richness of this learning approach.  We talked about the value of educational techniques for formation instead of assessment, and she clearly feels that her students learned to think about their subjects differently by writing a case.   “And it was fun to be the reader instead of the writer for a change.”

Last year, Linda published a textbook with Plural Press entitled Science of Successful Supervision and Mentorship (available through Amazon).  I haven’t read it yet, but it has one glowing review on Amazon. Linda told me that the book includes sections about teaching with cases.

Linda also serves as a reviewer for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.   So far, she has reviewed one case for the collection.   “It was fun to read [a case] instead of write [one].   I think you learn about the writer’s personality from the case.”   Not surprisingly, Linda’s favorite cases are in her area of aphasia and speech learning.  She recommended Speak Up! Mini Cases in Language. Because Linda is teaching upper-level undergraduate students, she prefers small intense cases that require students to relate their concept of speech pathology with the story.

Linda would like to try writing another case in the future, and ended by saying, “I appreciate all that the case study group has done for my teaching and learning.”

Toni Lafferty

Toni Lafferty

High School Teacher
Science Department
C.H. Yoe High School
Cameron, Texas

Toni Lafferty teaches at the C.H. Yoe High School in Cameron, Texas.  She teaches biology, anatomy, and an independent studies course to students in grades 9 through 12.  She’s been with this institution for 30 years, and her long experience has given her a quiet confidence.

Toni told me that she has used cases from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science for three years, but for years before that she collected and incorporated material describing various problems that essentially were small cases.  Now she uses problem-based learning in all of her classes.  She uses cases in her biology class, but the curriculum for that course is more constrained, so it’s her anatomy classes especially where she uses cases frequently.  Her anatomy course is divided into six sections.  She begins the exploration of each system with a case, and sometimes the case is her primary teaching technique for the entire system.  Sometimes the cases use problem-based learning; sometimes they employ the interrupted case technique or other methods that require more guidance from her.  She really likes using cases because they allow teaching flexibility, depending on time availability and the particular dynamics of the class.

In addition, Toni is a co-editor (with Karen Lucci, Ethel Stanley, Margaret Waterman, and Claire Hemingway) of Problem Solving with Plant Biology: Cases for the Classroom, a new e-book of cases about plants designed for use in middle schools and high schools.  Toni told me it was developed from workshops that were part of the PlantIt "Careers, Cases, and Collaboration" project.  (I’ve not read the book yet, but as a botanist it’s definitely on my to-do list! It can be downloaded for free from http://www.myplantit.org/).

She likes the cases on our website, and mentioned many are great for teaching anatomical topics.  When I asked her how cases change her classroom, she paused and reflected. “Cases generate more conversation, more questions from the kids.  Then I don’t answer questions but redirect them with another set of questions so they have to explore.”  She laughed, admitting that students often are frustrated at first when she does this.  Some come to appreciate the power they have over their learning. “I had one student in her salutorian speech at the end of the year mention that ‘Ms. Lafferty made us explore and find the answers ourselves.’”   She smiled, remembering a student who did not enjoy biology.  After studying a case, the student told her, “You made me want to read a science book!”  And cases can get her students very invested.  “When we do the case study, Chemical Eric, my students are very concerned. I had one say, ‘I hope he’s still alive!’”

I asked Toni what, in her opinion, makes a good case:  “Two things. I like data for them to graph and work with, reading the charts or having to make graphs.  So I look for quantitative data students have to work with.  The other thing is that the case is unique.  It's great if it has current or new information, something relevant.”  So Toni recommends the case study 2000-Meter Row by Nathan Strong from our collection. “It has data and a good story, and now with the Olympics, students will be interested.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked her what advice she had for teachers who want to use cases.  She immediately replied, “Take time.   Cases take time.  Allow more time so kids can work through the case, and then go back to reflection time.  They need to process it.”