Introduction to Toxicology

Introduction to Toxicology

David Cook
1996 3M Teaching Fellow

am in the process of writing yet another letter of recommendation for an ex-student. She is beautiful, brilliant, currently registered as an undergraduate in one of our best medical schools, and she wants to be an astronaut. And probably will be. As the words “talented, successful, unpretentious” appear on the page that will, with a little good luck, advance her career another step, I reflect on how much I did not want to teach the course in which I first encountered her. I did not need extra teaching, and many of my colleagues told me that teaching undergraduate science was a totally depressing experience.

However, my fellow 3M Teaching Fellows espoused a different set of beliefs. These people told me that any teaching can be rewarding, that students like to learn, and that they can be wonderfully creative, and they provided me with a rich vein of anecdote to support their views. This perspective made much more sense and corresponded with my own experience, so I decided not to fight it, and took on the teaching of a rather large, third-year Introduction to Toxicology course with as much good grace as I could muster.

Working in a medical school, where most of my teaching occurs, means that the content and approach become constrained by the overall curriculum and the professional needs of the students. But in a science course anything goes, provided it does not violate university regulations, and soon the extra forty hours of lectures stopped seeming like a “teaching load” and started to become something much more akin to a playground.

What did the students really need to learn? That was the first question. And it was immediately clear that the reproduction of minutiae was not what they needed to learn. All the ideas were out there. Surely, even in the harsh world of science, it was important that students be involved, be able to communicate orally and in writing, and learn how to work together and to explore unknown lands.

None of the ideas that I introduced were startlingly new, except to the students. They sat together in teams that worked collectively to answer questions and to teach some of the material. Teams chose any area that had not been taught, wrote a paper and presented it orally to their classmates. I changed the structure of my lectures and the nature of examinations.

What needs to be highlighted is how students over the years have responded to this approach. They produce some research papers that are better written and more informative than offerings in the published literature, but what really demonstrates their abilities are the ten-minute presentations. They are funny, creative, informative and full of good science.

One team chose to look at tetrodotoxin, the poisonous compound much prized in Japanese puffer fish fugu, and presented their data as a mock-up of a Japanese cooking school. Another group chose mustard gas, and started by acting out a high-level military conference at the end of WWI. We have had TV Family Feud discussions so that the group could show two opposing views about a particular compound; wickedly accurate parodies of drug abuse presentations; and one memorable skit based on the toxin in the South American tree frog which involved a group of incompetent white hunters in the Amazon and a remarkably unlikely field surgical operation. They added PowerPoint, music, movies and this year one group put their entire presentation on DVD, turned the lights down and said, “Enjoy the show!” So much for “not creative,” “all they want is fact” and so on. And, no, they don’t whine about their grades. In the course evaluations most students believe that they put more effort into this course, learn more and enjoy it more.

There is another aspect as well, in which the course has made a difference. Innumerable students end up in research, in one of the professional schools, or just having a good time in a course they did not expect to enjoy.

The students are generous with their thanks, but in truth the amount of sheer delight I get from the fact that they learn and enjoy the process is more than sufficient reward. Although my friends in education here and across the country have shown me so much, it is the students who end up providing the real lessons, and who have turned a teaching experience I did not want into something I treasure. Next year I will make some changes, partly because of some new ideas in the literature, but mostly because the students say “It would be even more successful if we could just …. “