Case study in flipping the STEM classroom

Caryn Outten’s biochemistry students will doubtless find lifelong success in the health sciences if she can pass on to them an enthusiasm that comes to her naturally.

“I like biochemistry because you can see how it applies to everyday life, you can see how it’s relevant to health,” she says. “It’s really interesting to me to understand how our cells work at a molecular level.”

A new approach in an upper-level undergraduate biochemistry course is helping her help students make that connection. Harnessing technology and the flipped classroom model, Outten now spends time that used to be taken up by a traditional lecture, where students passively listened and took notes, with an interactive experience heavily focused on clinical case studies where biochemistry comes to the fore.

They include incidents like the Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s, in which a series of sudden deaths were traced to cyanide-laced bottles of the painkiller sold in the Chicago area. Breaking the class into small groups, Outten asks them to take on the role of a medical examiner confronted by the mysterious series of deaths. 

Cyanide is a chemical species that, when it finds its way into the human body, binds to heme, the iron-containing center of not just hemoglobin but other crucial enzymes as well. Cyanide competes with oxygen in binding to heme enzymes and inhibits oxygen delivery to cells, which can lead to asphyxiation at high enough doses.

But that’s just one consequence. Because of the inter-relatedness of enzymes and metabolic pathways, which are the focus of the biochemistry course, other symptoms will develop. Role-playing the medical examiner helps students work through a critical thought process to deduce how symptoms will follow from changes in biochemical processes. 

A new approach in an upper-level undergraduate biochemistry course is helping students see how the subject applies to everyday life.

The case studies, which examine other accessible topics including lactose intolerance and alcohol metabolism, couldn’t have been examined in such depth without revising the traditional lecture format. Outten uses short pre-taped lectures available online to prepare students for the interactive problem-solving sessions in the class. 

The Center for Teaching Excellence was instrumental in helping her put together the new course, which was funded by a flipped classroom development grant. Participating in several CTE workshops and seminars gave her the knowledge and technological wherewithal to bring the new course to life, which helped Outten earn one of the inaugural Garnet Apple Awards this spring.

It took a bit of salesmanship to get the ball rolling in the course’s first incarnation last semester. Outten had to convince the students, who were largely acclimated to a lecture format, of the value of the new classroom setting, which essentially serves as a homework problem session but with more interaction than they were used to. But there was no buyer’s remorse. 

“The reviews were great,” Outten says. “They loved it. I think it makes them excited that they can use what they learn to solve a real world problem.”

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