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A Case in Point: From Active Learning to the Job Market


Mary Walczak
Chemistry Department
St. Olaf College
Juliette Lantz
Chemistry Department
Drew University


This case was developed for use in the first weeks of a course in order to show students how participating in active learning exercises in their classes can benefit them. It uses the fictionalized story of a manager of a scientific consulting firm who has approval to hire an entry level scientist. Students read evaluations of the five job candidates, then rank them and list the reasons for that ranking and/or analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate in regard to the position. This prepares them to discuss (and defend) in class their ranking. The case serves to motivate students for active learning pedagogies throughout the course, and also demonstrates how they can use their course work to gain skills that may make them employable. The case is designed to be equally useful in any type of science course at an introductory (majors or non-majors) or advanced level, in any field from chemistry to environmental science to biology. With upper-level students, it can be used to explore the transition from college to a career, and help them translate their education experiences into marketable skills.


  • Motivate students to embrace active learning pedagogies in their science courses, and begin fostering a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to student involvement.
  • Introduce students to the case discussion method as a valuable active learning pedagogy.
  • Serve as an ice breaker in the first week of class.
  • Promote camaraderie and group skills in the classroom.
  • Prepare students for their next life transition, from college to a career.
  • Help students consider ways to make themselves employable and competitive in the job market.
  • Promote undergraduate research, internships, independent projects, advanced writing, close interaction with faculty, and computer proficiency as valuable experiences for undergraduates.


Active learning; job skills; job market; career

Topical Areas


Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Analysis (Issues), Discussion



Subject Headings

Science (General)  |   Science Education  |   Biology (General)  |   Chemistry (General)  |   Environmental Science  |   Geology  |   Medicine (General)  |   Teacher Education  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Susannah Gal
Department of Biological Sciences
State University of New York at Binghamton
Binghamton, NY
I used this case to start off my Molecular Biology lecture class in the Fall of 2000. This is a junior/senior level course with about 90 students, 10 of whom are first-year graduate students. I used the case in their one-hour discussion section to supplement the three hours of lecture and group quizzes that I do. The first week, I had the groups discuss the candidates in the case and make a recommendation, which they then shared with the entire class during the in-class discussion. The second week they had to try to get examples of recommendation letters written by their professors (with all names blacked out) and then discuss these within their groups. Below are some of the comments the students made when I asked them what they learned from this exercise. I asked them to answer that question at the end of the three- to five-page summary paper that I assigned with this case. In the summary paper, they had to tell me which candidate they had picked for the interview and why as well as provide a summary of their own strengths and weaknesses and how they might improve.

  • To be sure, completing this project has been rewarding. It has allowed me to see the letter of recommendation process from a number of angles. I am better for having seen the perspective of the student, the recommender, and the person responsible for filling a position in a job or an academic program.
  • By reading over the requirements for a good candidate for an employment opportunity, I can see how important it is to be able to work in a group setting and make contributions to its success by being able to follow, lead or communicate results to others.
  • Though a strange assignment at first, I came away from it with a better understanding of the importance of group dialogue, academically and especially professionally. I also have a better idea of what an evaluation letter looks like and the steps that I would have to take in order to ensure myself of obtaining a persuasive one.
  • I have recently applied to medical school and wish I had been exposed to this exercise prior to my application process. I am very impressed with this exercise and hope that many more students are exposed to it at an early point in their university experience.
  • It was an interesting experience to discuss this with a group due to the different ways of thinking and reasoning of each person in the group.
  • When discussing whom we decided to hire during our discussion section, I actually got quite involved and expressed some of my ideas to the whole class not just my group. That is something I do not always do in a room full of people.
  • When I arrived in discussion and presented my choice, it was not popular. Many people in the group had chosen Ted as a second or third choice, but the overwhelming majority favored Martin. It was the ensuing discussion and my attempt to justify my choice that led me to a surprising result. Often in my argument, I would attribute a characteristic to Ted that did not appear in the recommendation. After a while, I was forced to concede not only to the group, but also to myself that Martin was the better candidate. I was left with the question: If even I believe now that Martin is better, and if he appeared better on the checklist, why did I choose Ted? After looking over the exercise again later and over my notes from the discussion, I realized, with great surprise, what had happened. I had recognized that Ted was a lot like me, so I had taken my own characteristics and imposed them on Ted, even though they do not appear in his evaluation. I realized that I wanted to hire Ted, with my own best traits.

Most undergraduates have little concept of how hiring and firing is really done.

This is how the class voted on the five candidates:

  • Ted Forrest: 33 votes
  • Kathryn Grady: 26 votes
  • Martin Clinger: 22 votes
  • Terri Gordse: 5 votes
  • William Latham: 2 votes