Back into a cactus? Now what? Engaging Nonscience Majors in Physiology

snow cactus 2

It’s February in Tucson, Arizona, and you’re out in the desert attempting to photograph the unique phenomenon of snow on cactus. You find an ideal subject to shoot but need to be slightly further away to best frame the picture. Backing up while looking through the viewfinder, you suddenly leap forward and subsequently feel a pain in your derriere. Heart racing, you turn around to face your offender, only to blush, discovering that you had inadvertently backed in to a prickly pear cactus.

(from Fundamentals of Human Physiology, beginning of Lecture #6)


Teaching science to non-science majors creates many challenges even to the most seasoned scientist and science teacher. The fear of science for many non-science students presents immediate roadblocks to learning especially if the topics are not presented in a way that connects with them. The difficulty we often face is maintaining the rigor of science courses while ensuring student learning and progress in the subject. One approach I’ve had success with is to engage students right away using introductory scenarios that present the topics as they occur in the “real world”, setting the stage for the advanced content to be covered in the lecture and/or explored in the lab.


The Introductory Scenario

Each component of the above scenario demonstrates a complex aspect of the nervous system: the neuronal method of rapid communication, spinal reflexes for the sudden leap, sensory perception, voluntary movement, cognition, and autonomic and limbic control of emotions and homeostasis. When discussed as separate entities, these topics are often difficult, alien and overwhelming to the science neophyte, and usually prompt questions such as “why do we have to know this?” or “what does this all mean?”

After listening to the above scenario, the 75 non-science undergraduates in the Fundamentals of Human Physiology course, instead begin offering suggestions for the “real-life” components of the scenario, setting up, step-by-step, how things happened: first the jump forward, then the feeling of pain, next slowly turning around to see “who bit you”, etc.… And, with just a little prompting, they begin to identify the functions and characteristics the nervous system must possess to be able to accomplish these tasks: e.g., rapid communication over long distances, priorities of functions, automated responses, memory storage and possibility of inhibitory influences. The scenario has helped establish a connection between scientific information and daily life, enabling students to become actively engaged in their learning and to start putting together the various science details and concepts during subsequent instructional activities.


Benefits of the Approach

Use of cases or scenarios in science education, especially in physiology, where real-life situations are much more easily captured, has been a great tool for many of us. They work well to promote critical thinking and problem solving on a topic and/or to pull together ideas or assess learning after the fact. However, I have found that they are also ideal for getting the topic started.

Using this introductory scenario strategy has at least three benefits. First, it engages the students at the very beginning, having them actively involved in setting up the outline of the lecture real time.  Each student contributes to the framework that is familiar and can be used to organize the forthcoming new information. This familiarity, or connection with the student’s own experience, helps to break through the fear and alienation often felt by non-science undergrads during their required exposure to science courses. What is created is a “want to know”, an interest in learning about the topic. The student is ready for the once feared content.

Second, the more familiar everyday language used for the initial scenario description enables students to enter into the discussion of the material at the outset, before having to learn considerable vocabulary and jargon.  Then having a graspable framework for the new material, the subsequent transition to their use of appropriate vocabulary and scientific details is more effective and long lasting.

Third, the scenario strategy paired with group discussion can serve as a diagnostic for students’ prior knowledge. It can reveal the students’ background and perspectives, allowing for quick modification of the content, the approach and/or the examples used to illustrate the principles under discussion.  It can also expose misconceptions or faulty knowledge based on “old wives” tales and past experience. These revelations can be very instructive as the class attempts to analyze the “kernels of truth” underlying these tales. However, these prior misconceptions can still be very difficult for the neophyte student to let go of.  While using the scenario discussion is useful to jumpstart a topic, it isn’t always sufficient to convince some students to give up strongly held beliefs.  Meaningful and multiple follow up experiences have proven necessary to help solidify the science content for some.



So does this work?   Several semesters comparing pre and post-class surveys revealed insights on the type of expectations nonscience students have about science and what type of teaching and teacher-student interactions are most valued. The pre-survey revealed some very strong beliefs about 1) science classes in general: although they enjoyed some topics, they also thought that science content is too hard and confusing, often not applicable to life,  and 2) the way that science was taught: too often it is dull, boring, rigid and inflexible, with little compassion for students’ inability to understand the topic.

The post-survey revealed that the majority were pleasantly surprised that they enjoyed the class utilizing this scenario strategy.  Students reported to have gained or learned information that was relevant and valuable, being able to apply this new knowledge to their own lives and find benefits.   However, they still found the course to be quite challenging, the tests to be intensive and several topics especially difficult. They also considered the time commitment for the course to be substantial–both the time spent in the lab as well as the time required to study and adequately prepare for exams. We felt that this was a significant finding: students found the material challenging and, at times, difficult, yet still exhibited an enthusiasm for the course and science in general.  They enjoyed physiology within the context of real-world applications and hands-on experiences despite that many were thought to be quite challenging. This finding agrees with the many advocates of creating meaningful learning environments in science.

And the key assessment – demonstration of knowledge on exams or assignments – has shown that their understanding of the material is quite sound and transferable.  When faced with a novel, integrative scenario, the students are able to pull together ideas and details to satisfactorily explain the physiology at work, though obviously more controlled research on this would be helpful.

This method can be adapted to any course at any level.  All of the topics or lectures in the Human Physiology course were started using this strategy, but I also use this in freshman interdisciplinary colloquia, upper division courses for physiology majors and in medical school. However, one of the most challenging aspects of beginning this type of teaching is coming up with imaginative appropriate scenarios that are engaging and instructive. Fortunately the media and news continually provide examples of human physiology at work.  I tend to utilize an amalgam of experiences from my own life or that of friends and family to create ‘real-life’ scenarios.  And there are amazing databases available to instructors that provide cases or scenarios as well as teaching notes to jump-start the imagination intensive aspect of this process.  (e.g., The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science directed by CF Herreid at SUNY Buffalo.)



National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, CF Herreid, SUNY Buffalo.


Lucinda RankinLucinda (Cindy) Rankin, University of Arizona  
Questions such as “I wonder how this works?” or “Why does it do that?” characterize my life-long approach to science. These questions have progressively narrowed in focus to how the body works (physiology), how we move (neuromuscular biology), and how we learn (science education). The array of courses that I have developed and teach allows me to continue pursuing these questions while sharing the excitement with students, from freshmen in non-science majors to 2nd yr med students and veteran high school science teachers. My approach has evolved continually over the past 30+ yrs teaching in/out of the classroom (at Univ of Arizona since 1980), but has at its heart setting context and relevance for the content and getting the students actively engaged in the material from day 1. Now also serving as the UA Research Integrity Officer, an additional question has been added to my platform: how can we assure that research is done in an ethical and responsible manner?

One thought on “Back into a cactus? Now what? Engaging Nonscience Majors in Physiology”

Fortunately physiology is such a “sexy” discipline. Everyone wants to know something about how their body works. That is why teaching physiology to elementary students is such fun. I even taught physiology to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute students (retired individuals) and was able to give an overview presentation on day one and then solicit systems to concentrate on for the other 3 class periods. It was great fun and not very demanding since I had the slides from my undergraduate teaching.

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