By Pat Marsteller

At my workshops, the first participant questions usually include:  “How do I find the time to write cases?” and  “How long does it take to design problem spaces that really engage the learners?”

A surprising number of cases are now accessible online. The topics, audience level, case style, teaching notes, sample activities and assessments can also be found.  (Note: You can go to Cases&PBL  in the menu above and select Finding Cases  in the sub menu or just click here.)

You can adopt an existing case, adapt it to your specific learning objectives, add authentic assessments and resources appropriate for your learners, and the case is ready to go. Sometimes reinventing the wheel works best.

Adapting Cases to Your Objectives for Student Learning

Student learning is often enhanced when courses, assignments and cases have clear goals and objectives.  Sometimes you will find a case or problem that seems to fit your concept, but  it is written for a different level course with objectives or resources that don’t exactly fit. You may need to provide a more appropriate background or possibly restructure the case to engage your own students with the problem. Choosing key questions and providing initial resources will also help set the stage.

We will look at the questions and resources for my two-part case adapted from  A Case Study Involving Influenza and the Influenza Vaccine  by John S. Bennett that can be found in the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) Case Collection.

Preventing the Flu

Scene 1:  Conversation between college students


Hey Mary, how’s it going?  With finals coming up, my life is crazy!  I sure hope I don’t get the flu again like I did last year…  My Gen Chem grade took a nose dive!


So did you get your flu shot?  I did.


No way I’m wasting $30 bucks on a flu shot.  I got one last year and I still got sick. So sick I missed the Falcon’s game and had to watch it on TV at Jim’s party.  Jim got one too and he got the stomach flu.  Besides aren’t you worried about side effects from the flu shot?


Shoot, no! Besides if you get the shot you won’t spread the flu to others.  I heard on TV that a certain percentage of the population have to be protected or we could have an epidemic, like the one in 1918.  I think over 20 million people died!


Are you sure that was flu?  I’m gonna ask my Bio prof.

Scene 2: Later that day…


Wow! My bio prof showed me a neat program to look at the effects of people getting vaccinated.  Let me show you….It’s called the SIR module.


After our discussion of the first part of the case, Preventing the Flu, the following questions were given to each group of students.

1. What are the main symptoms of influenza?

2. Would you expect a flu shot to protect against the “stomach flu”? Why or why not?

3. Identify some of the various causative agents of “stomach flu” and compare them to the influenza virus.

4. Explain how a vaccine provides immunity against infection. Are there any side effects to the influenza vaccine?  Should George or Mary worry about developing autism?

5. George described the flu that he suffered last year despite his flu shot. How can you explain this. (Hint: Why don’t flu shots protect you for multiple years?)

Learning Issue Reports

Each person is responsible for one of the learning issues identified.  The idea is to gather as much information as possible and summarize the relevant material for the group. For each learning issue, you should use at least one primary reference, and at least four websites. It’s very important that each group member do his/her best work researching the issues so that the whole group will master all the learning issues it has identified.

For your issue, please prepare a one-two page report including:

  1. A description of the issue.  What are you trying to learn?
  2. A thorough list of the resources you used while researching your issue ( > 5 resources).  Please use full citations. Please include a critical explanation of why you found the resource to be trustworthy or not.  For example, list several websites you tried in order to understand the issue.  For each website, explain why you found it helpful or useless.  Would you recommend the website to other students for help in understanding the issue?  Is the author of the information you are reading qualified to make such statements?  Remember to give a critical explanation for each resource you use during your research of the issue.
  3. A concluding paragraph that will fully explain the issue to others who didn’t do the research but who want to learn about the issue.  It is your job to teach the others in your group what you learned by doing your research.  If you find conflicting evidence, describe how you determined which resource to trust.

Two Part Cases

Scene 2 was added to the original case idea because I wanted the case to provoke them to consider more quantitative analyses.  Their homework included using the SIR model to examine the impact of flu vaccines.


The following resources were also made available for the undergraduate students in my course:   Information about commonly acquired infectious illnesses  Models for the spread of disease.   This site provides a good analysis of the symptoms, causes, treatments and preventatives for infectious illnesses that are commonly acquired.  Is It a Cold or the Flu?  Norovirus Q&A  What You Should Know About the Flu   This is an excellent site with too many links to describe for this single case study. It can provide students with a tremendous source of introductory information and links to peer reviewed publications.  Influenza Viruses: Drift and Shift  Flu in 1918

Smith, N.M., J.S. Bresee, D.K. Shay, T.M. Uyeki, N.J. Cox, and R.A. Strikas. 2006. Prevention and control of influenza: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Recommendations and Reports July 28, 2006 / 55(RR10):1–42.    Vaccine Recommendations  Flu Activity—Reports and Surveillance Methods in the United States  This site is updated weekly and will help instructors and students alike find the most up to date studies regarding influenza surveillance. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)  A free, online resource linked to the CDC website. Go to the MMWR site, and use the local search engine to find “influenza.” Questions and Answers—Influenza (Flu) Antiviral Drugs This site is designed for clinical determination of proper dosage of antiviral drugs in the treatment of influenza, but it is particularly helpful in describing the fundamental properties of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) and Relenza® (zanamivir).

How might use the flu case?

Suppose you want students to examine historical data and  consider how vaccine scientists might decide to develop the current vaccine.  You could have them visit the following resources:

In a more advanced course, you might have them compare sequences for different strains using the influenza research database.

The choice is yours.  Any case can be adapted to different levels of investigation and autonomy.

Adapting Cases for Your Students

To make cases engaging for your students, you have to begin with what your students find interesting.  Are they primarily interested in one facet of biology or mathematics or computing?  What do they like to read? What kinds of movies do they watch? What music do they listen to? What sports do they watch or play?   What clubs do they belong to? Who do they admire? Will they be more interested if your case is based on a recent event that happened locally or does it require a novel setting?  Are they ready to use primary literature or should your resources focus on general interest publications or news articles?

Undergraduates may respond to characters that talk like they do. Embedded information on careers in science is often intriguing to them. Many students respond to dilemmas and suspense, although they can be captured by a more didactic style or a news story.  It helps to have local interest for some students.  For example,an invasive species case set in the northeastern part of the U.S. can be changed to fit our Atlanta area by choosing invasive species that have created havoc here.

To find some invasive species in your own neck of the woods, see:

How do you find out what the students interests are? You might want to use a student interest survey like this one.  There are  a variety of interest inventories on the web including ones you can purchase.  However, an open class discussion on interests may give you insight on how to engage their interests and connect them to the sciences and related disciplines.

Your students have different backgrounds, experiences and abilities.  In order to meet the learning needs of all your students, you may need to differentiate your instruction by providing entry points for different kinds of learners, accommodating differently abled students, or providing supplemental instruction for those with weaker backgrounds. You may find that redesigning cases to include people from different cultures and perspectives will help.

To help you think about student differences, you may wish to explore the following resources:

Share →

2 Responses to Reinventing the Wheel: Adopt and Adapt Cases

  1. Profile photo of Web Editor Web Editor says:

    Advice from Pat is always worth listening to… and this post doesn’t disappoint as we look at adopting and adapting an existing case for our learners. From finding the case, rewriting, adding online and primary research resources, and finally to developing small group and individual activities, she leads us to an influenza problem space with all the skill and much better intentions than those of the Pied Piper.

  2. I found a case on the Buffalo case site that I could adapt and adopt to use as in an inorganic chemistry course.

    In the case, a doctor explains to two parents that their son has thalassemia, a genetic disorder that causes hemoglobin to be deformed. The parents must choose an appropriate treatment option ( iron therapy with blood transfusions or do nothing)
    I liked the story, but the original case focused more on molecular biology and biochemistry, rather than bioinorganic chemistry. I would remove most of the questions in the case and change the focus to how oxygen binds to hemoglobin(end on/side on, oxidation state of iron), how we study this (IR and Raman spectroscopies) and what controls this(normal vs abnormal hemoglobin, model compounds). I would assign groups of students to research one of these topics (I would give them web links to resources) out of class, then report back to the class with a few powerpoint slides.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar