by Oron Frenkel, Public Health
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005
It was our first discussion section for Drugs and the Brain. We were about to embark on the study of some advanced concepts in neuropharmacology, but before we could get to the “drugs” part, my students needed to understand the “brain.” And they only had one week to do it, which meant I only had one shot at making sure they got it right.
For biology majors, this introduction would be a simple review of concepts they had heard before. It was the others I worried about. To the non-science majors, who comprised the vast majority of our class, this would be a whole new universe.
The solution came to me in the form of theater. What I wanted them to learn was a molecular and cellular story. This story would only make sense if they could relate to its characters. My plan was to have my students enact the sequence of events they needed to master, from the binding of a molecule of neurotransmitter to receptors on one end of a neuron to the release of more molecules like it from the other end.
I broke up the process of neurotransmission into seven stages. I drew up posters for each group of players and called my students up one by one and gave them roles. I explained what each player was doing, how he/she would accomplish this, and a poster label to remind everyone what part of the cell he/she was. Each time a new group of students came up, a new part of the neuron was added, and the whole neurotransmission dance became one step longer, adding complexity bit by bit. We began with the simplest act of a molecule binding to its receptor. By the end of the exercise, only a few students were left sitting and the rest were jumping around or doing “the wave” in their proper sequence. I couldn’t have asked for a better neuron.
In retrospect, I realized that this performance did not just hammer home the basic concepts the students needed to master, but helped emphasize some of the deeper concepts of biology to folks for whom this might be their only biology class in college. The way that the individual students came together to act out a functional neuron reflected the ways that cells themselves are conglomerates of functional parts. The biologist usually says that “form follows function.” I remember learning this lesson only after studying many, many different biological systems, and finally seeing the common theme emerge. For many of my students, though, the lesson came through the study of a single system because they enacted it, rather than just being passive learners in a lecture hall or behind a microscope.
I solicited verbal feedback from my students on all of our activities in section every three weeks or so. During several of the feedback sessions, many said that as they learned the ways that various drugs acted on the different systems of neurons in the brain, they were able to remember our performance and could easily visualize exactly where and how various drugs exerted their molecular actions. Some students felt that I expected them to perform and that they couldn’t say no” even if they had wanted to. Rather than feel limited by the lack of choice, however, they found it rewarding to feel safe and free of judgment to act so goofy in front of their peers. After all, everyone was doing it…