Students in Diane O'Dowd's introductory biology course never know what they are going to get. One day she might arrive toting tennis balls that stand in for hydrogen ions or show up in class wearing her daughter's old Halloween wig, which doubles as a membrane vesicle studded with spiky purple proteins. And dozing off in her class can be dangerous. A sleepy undergrad can wind up starring as the "resting neuron" in a one-act play on nerve-cell stimulation.
These are just a few of the ways O'Dowd has brought microscopic processes to life for students in large introductory lecture classes. Her "garage demos"—so called because that's where she forages for many of her materials—earn rave reviews not only from students but also from viewers on YouTube.
O'Dowd, a neurobiologist, began experimenting with the use of interactive teaching in small classes at the University of California (UC), Irvine, about 10 years ago. She found it was more fun for her and more effective for students than traditional lecturing. When she got the chance to develop a new introductory biology course in 2004, she and three fellow professors jumped at the challenge of creating the same interactive environment in a four-section monster course that would serve 1,600 incoming freshmen each fall. Among many other techniques, O'Dowd and her colleagues placed students into small in-class working groups and used hand-held electronic clickers to get immediate feedback on questions posed in class.
With funding from her HHMI professor grant in 2006, O'Dowd began looking for new ways to make sure students are actively involved, which led her to create the garage demos. O'Dowd studies the neurons and connections that account for learning and memory in fruit flies, and she regularly brings research into her classroom. For example, when discussing study strategies, she tells her students that the fruit flies she works on in her lab remember information in much the same way that humans do. The flies can be trained to avoid an odor by pairing it with unpleasant stimuli, like electric shocks. More importantly, she explains that long-term retention of the association requires repeated exposure to the pairs of stimuli interspersed with intervals of rest. While the flies can learn quickly if they "cram"—receiving paired stimuli with no rest intervals—they, like their undergraduate counterparts, soon forget what they learned.
The students are not the only ones who benefit. O'Dowd says she gets more satisfaction from teaching than in years past. Inspiring young people provides rewards that are different from those associated with her research but that complement it. "I love teaching, but I want to do it in the context of my research," she explains. "Students really listen when you tell them about recent discoveries. That's one bonus they get by attending a research university. The challenge is creating an environment where faculty are rewarded and enabled to excel in both research and teaching."
With her new HHMI professor grant, O'Dowd will use her introductory biology course as a model to promote techniques to engage students in large core classes, not only at UC Irvine but also at other large research universities. She says that faculty can improve the quality of instruction for students while reducing the time spent away from the lab. She and her team will also continue efforts to train teaching assistants to lead discussion sections in an interactive way and coach them on mentoring undergraduate research.