By Clyde Freeman Herreid

  • The 30 second ad flashes on screen:
  • Visual —Dozing students fiddling with their ipads, iphones,  pods, or blackberries while a steady monotone voice extols the intricacies of the Krebs Cycle, DNA replication, or the marvels of the cerebral cortex. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
  • Voiceover —“Change your boring classroom into a dynamic high energy experience—tell stories that grab the attention of  our students, electrify your audience, and change their lives forever. Use Case Study Teaching!”
  • Visual —Students dancing wildly through the streets of Manhattan and singing “We are the World.”
  • Voiceover —“Get this multicolor spectacular DVD showing how you, too, can be the hit of your campus, get tenure, and be a beloved figure of administrators and alumni. This DVD can beyours—a $200 value. You would expect to pay even $350 if you were to buy this at retail prices. But for this special TV offer, you can now purchase this not for $350, not for $200, not for $75, but for this short time for only $19.95. Do it now; this offer lasts for only 24 hours.”
  • Voiceover —“But wait! There’s more! If you call within the next 60 minutes we will also send you this DVD demonstrating how you, in 10 minutes, can galvanize your students into active learners. And we will even throw in a $10 donation in your name to the Save the Panda’s Foundation. And send you a life-size photo of Lady Gaga extolling the virtues of vegetarianism. But hurry, there’s only 59 minutes left for this offer.”

Fade out.

If it were only so easy. Just $19.95.

Every teacher tells stories. Sometimes they are little vignettes. Sometimes longer yarns. Even a trivial, off the cuff, anecdote can provoke somnambulistic students to raise their eyelids a trifle, while a first class tale can make their pulses race. Why don’t we do this more often? Why don’t we use stories—case studies—to put learning into context? It is one of the puzzles of the modern day classroom which is populated by students with little tolerance for the boring and the humdrum presentations that pass for teaching in many classrooms.

Case studies are stories with an educational message. They have taken a firm place in the STEM education lexicon for the past 25 years. Unlike the cases that are used in law and business schools where a teacher-led whole class discussion is the normal mode of instruction, there are innumerable teaching strategies in the STEM arsenal. They range from stories that unfold with a debate format, to small group Problem-based Learning favored by the health related professions, to computer and Internet-based cases, to the use of Clicker Cases especially suitable for large classes. And there are multiple websites that are devoted to the dissemination and promotion of exciting cases that tap into real world problems.

I am fortunate to be the Director of what is, arguably, the largest STEM case collection, the NSF supported National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science hosted by the University at Buffalo. Our 400+ teaching cases range over all STEM disciplines, especially in biology; they publish a new case along with teaching notes about once every two weeks.

Let’s take a look at one of the most recent cases on the website, a case on climate change. It captures several of the benefits of teaching with cases. The case, Global Climate Change: What Does it Look Like? was written by Ronald L. Carnell and Rebecca M. Price of the University of Washington, Bothell.

The abstract reads:
In this interrupted case study, Ph.D. paleoclimatologist-turned-TV-meteorologist Sara Fahrenheit finds herself projected into a future climate that reminds her of the Early Eocene: it’s hot, it’s humid, and seems tropical. The story is a vehicle for teaching students how to distinguish between climate and weather by exploring the difference between average conditions and one-time anomalies. Students explore how to minimize the impact of their own carbon footprint and how small changes can scale up to make a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the case, students find, graph, and interpret data about global climate change. They also learn why a shift in just one degree Celsius can impact the Earth’s climate dramatically. The case is appropriate for college classes and advanced high school classes in general science, history of life, climatology, environmental science, and ecology.

Let’s take a look at several features that makes this an exciting and strong case:

  1. It deals with a major controversial contemporary problem, albeit with a flavor of science fiction.
  2. The case storyline unfolds like a detective story in stages with questions after each part, an example of the Interrupted Case Method, which is the favorite case teaching technique of many STEM faculty because the teacher is firmly in control of the class management and can orchestrate the time and direction of the class. This is in contrast to the classical whole class discussion technique where some faculty say they are ill at ease and less in control of the process.
  3. The case deals with human beings that are brought to life via the story line and the dialogue. It has several individuals in the story of differing ages so the case potentially connects to a diverse audience.
  4. The topic is interdisciplinary, and thus can be used in a variety of classes and different age levels by modifying the assignments.
  5. There are several activities that keep the students engaged and challenged.
  6. The case targets all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in as much as it demands knowledge recall, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Students must analyze and interpret data, tables, and graphs.
  7. It features different learning activities: so we find homework and reading prior to the case, small group activities within the class where the jigsaw approach is used along with general wrap-up whole class discussion. And there are follow-up exercises available.
  8. One of the classroom activities asks the students to analyze their own contribution to global climate change and environmental problems by having them calculate their own carbon-footprint. And it focuses their attention finally on the essential question “How does this affect me?”

Thus, this case deals with a serious societal problem where students can alter their own behavior and consequently help solve a major global problem. One could hardly find a more appropriate example of a case study to highlight.

and just remember that this case and all of the others posted on the NCCSTS site can be yours not for $350, not for $200, not for $75 or even $19 .95 but for FREE by the courtesy of NSF.   Just check into

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2 Responses to The Real Story Behind Cases

  1. Profile photo of Web Editor Web Editor says:

    Our initial case is from the irrepressible Kipp Herreid who draws us into the topic of teaching with cases. I hope you enjoy his humor and insights as much as I do.

  2. Always enjoy Kipp’s stories and essays. Read them all, everyone.

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