Case Based Learning; Justin Case
October 5, 2010 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Albert Einstein once articulated what many scholars have felt in their own work: The history of scientific and technical discovery teaches us the human race is poor in independent thinking and creative imagination. Even when the external and scientific requirements for the birth of an idea have long been there, it generally needs an external stimulus to make it actually happen; man has, so to speak, to stumble right up against the thing before the right idea comes. The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University [html][pdf]

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Science education in the United States has been faulted by politicians, laymen, and scientists.

Case studies as a teaching technique:

Although the case method has been used for years to teach law, business, and medicine, it is not common in science. Yet the use of case studies holds great promise as a pedagogical technique for teaching science, particularly to undergraduates, because it humanizes science and well illustrates scientific methodology and values. It develops students’ skills in group learning, speaking, and critical thinking, and since many of the best cases are based on contemporary—and often contentious—science problems that students encounter in the news (such as human cloning), the use of cases in the classroom makes science relevant.

At the University at Buffalo, we have been experimenting with case studies in science courses for over 15 years. We have found the method to be amazingly flexible. It has been used as the core of entire courses such as “Scientific Inquiry” or for single experiences in otherwise traditional lecture and lab courses. Cases dealing with cold fusion, AIDS, acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic waste disposal have been used with undergraduates, graduates, and students in professional schools. A case on cystic fibrosis has been used in small laboratory sections run by teaching assistants and a case on the spotted owl has been employed in a large class of over 400 students. In our experience, students exposed to the case method have been extraordinarily excited and actively involved in their learning.

The aim of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science is to promote the development and dissemination of innovative materials and sound educational practices for case teaching in the sciences. Our website provides access to an award-winning library of case materials and we offer a variety of opportunities, including a five-day summer workshop and two-day fall conference, for science faculty to receive training in the method. Our work has been supported over the years by the National Science Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Robert Merry (1954) has written that the case process is inductive rather than deductive. He adds "The focus is on students learning through their joint, cooperative effort, rather than on the teacher conveying his/her views to students." Charles Gragg (1953) wrote a captivating article entitled "Because Wisdom Can't be Told," in which he stressed that the purpose of case teaching is to develop analytical and decision-making skills. Erskine et al. (1981) noted that students "are developing in the classroom, a whole set of skills of speaking, debating and resolving issues. They are also gaining a sense of confidence in themselves and relating to their peers." I would add that the use of case studies in science should encourage students to critically appraise stories about science they hear through the media, to have a more positive attitude about science, to understand the process of science and its limitations, and to be able to ask more critical questions during public policy debates.

In short, the goal in most of our case method teaching is not so much to teach the content of science (although that does clearly happpen) but to teach how the process of science works and to develop higher-order skills of learning. Looking at Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of cognitive learning, we focus less on "knowledge" than on comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Cases seem ideally suited to illustrate the relevance of science in society. Cases are equally suited to the collaborative/cooperative learning format in small groups but can easily be used in large discussion classes, as exemplified in law and business schools. They can even be adapted for megaclasses of students.

Case studies are stories with an educational message. They have been used as parables and cautionary tales for centuries, yet their formal use in the science classroom is recent. So recent, in fact, that until the early 1990s the case study literature in science was virtually non-existent. Until this time, faculty had neither taught with cases, written cases, nor seen one. This only began to change as more and more faculty realized inadequacies of the lecture method and began to seek novel methods of instruction. Enter the case study, a method imported from business, law, and medical schools.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Case Collection
-large collection of case studies, and resources materials

Other Case Collections -links to databases of case studies from other institutions and organizations, in many fields, business, science, engineering, many more

Related Sites

Case Study sources

The Day They Turned The Falls On:
The Invention Of The Universal Electrical Power System
posted by infinite intimation (13 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
When I think of memorable, desk calandar-ish quotes, Einstein runs an equal 2nd behind Shakespeare with guys like Bertrand Russell, Vonnegut, and Churchill. For a physicist, he seemed to be quite the philosopher in terms of cranking out quotable quotes. Just wondering if he gets misattributed a lot?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:18 AM on October 5, 2010

This is awesome. Thanks!
posted by honest knave at 12:49 AM on October 5, 2010

From what I've seen, the knowledge is the important part. Scientists need a huge amount of detailed knowledge to do what they do, at least in the hard sciences. I wonder whether case studies can convey that knowledge as efficiently as a systematic course.
posted by Xezlec at 4:49 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's true as Xezlec points out, that there is a huge amount of knowledge involved in science. That knowledge is readily available in text books. If you read the books and then work on case studies, you can see how scientific knowlege is actually used. So for the diligent student, it works. For the less diligent student, it would doubtlessly get very confusing.
posted by grizzled at 5:35 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

All things in good measure. Of the hundreds (if not thousands) of major historical experiments and thought experiments which I learned about in undergrad and grad school, I can perform almost none and could come up with something really close for a small fraction.

Go on, give undergrads a case study in developing tensor methods appropriate for general relativity. They'll be on the wiki in 2 seconds.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:42 AM on October 5, 2010

For a physicist, he seemed to be quite the philosopher in terms of cranking out quotable quotes.

I'm convinced there's a threshold... beneath it are the brilliant people in a field, but extremely specialized. Above it are the true revolutionaries, the ones with new ideas and the savvy to make them reality, and those people have a breadth of knowledge and talent. Renaissance men and women. These are two entirely different mindsets, not just different points along the same axis.

The vast majority of practical work is done by the former group, but the vast majority of good ideas come from the latter in my opinion.

My favorite physicist quote is this, though:
It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

- Richard Feynman
posted by Riki tiki at 6:43 AM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Even when the external and scientific requirements for the birth of an idea have long been there, it generally needs an external stimulus to make it actually happen;

You mean like Einstein writing a letter directly to Roosevelt urging him to build the atomic bomb and FDR writing "OK FDR" on the letter, thus starting the Manhattan Project?
posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 AM on October 5, 2010

You mean like Einstein writing a letter directly to Roosevelt urging him to build the atomic bomb and FDR writing "OK FDR" on the letter, thus starting the Manhattan Project?--Ironmouth

Do you mean this letter, calling for research that could lead to a "new and important source of energy in the immediate future"?

He mentions that this research would lead to the construction of powerful bombs.

"Prof. Albert Einstein... said that he was sure that President Roosevelt would have forbidden the atomic bombing of Hiroshima had he been alive ."
Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb, New York Times, 8/19/46, pg. 1.

"'I made one great mistake in my life,' he said to Linus Pauling, who spent an hour with him on the morning of November 11, 1954, '...when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them.'".
Ronald Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, pg. 620.
posted by eye of newt at 7:55 AM on October 5, 2010

The thing is Xezlec, everythign you need to know about chemistry - everything there is to know about chemistry - could be derived from data that would fit on a couple pieces of paper. All the interesting stuff is complex emergent properties that you'd probably not deduce in a million years no matter how hard you studied those rules and that's not how humanity worked this stuff out.

Instead we lookd at things and said, "What the hell?" and then screwed around with it, and then some more, and then made some wild assed guesses, and finally developed some tools and achieved some kind of understanding. At least until we found another "What the hell?" situation that revealed a gap in our understanding.

I could put together a lecture or two that explained how they worked out that sodium chloride is NaCl and calcium chloride is CaCl2 and at the end of it my audience would understand ionic bonding, stochiometry, the disaccociation of salts in water and have some insight into why the periodic table was shaped the way it was. That understanding is important. I don't know anyone who knows the electronegativity of sodium or chloride off the top of their head - you look crap like that up if you need it.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:17 AM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

What Kid Charlemagne said. My mathematics goes beyond what I took (and struggled with) in college because at some point I needed those tools to actually do interesting stuff. That's when I learned it: when I understood the use for it.

Too much classroom learning, in my experience, is presented without the framework for why it's useful and interesting (or how it was derived), and I think that's why I loathed school enough to drop out of college, and yet know and can apply far more chemistry and math and even, occasionally, physics than many of my friends with far more education than me.

(Physics is hard: One of my friends is a hardcore physics geek who had some interactions with Feynman, and at some point it's easier for me to look up the things I need to know about magnetism than to actually understand it. [ICP reference deliberately omitted...])
posted by straw at 5:26 PM on October 5, 2010

Wow, I had just the opposite experience. I had a lot of trouble learning about special relativity from books that tried to walk through Einstein's process of discovering it, and only understood it once I found some sources that explained it in a more direct, less historical way. Also, I tried to understand electronics for years by looking at practical circuits before finally taking one single formal class that just made it make perfect sense. Practice and a nice, systematic explanation of details are really helpful sometimes.

Also, sometimes when you give examples, it's easy to get some concepts mixed up with other concepts from other examples, and you can get all turned around. When those concepts are presented side-by-side in a minimal form that illustrates exactly the similarities and differences between them, it's like it helps you organize your mind better and see it all more clearly. Maybe I'm just unusually anal.

Maybe it would be better to give examples first, and then present an systematic approach for organizing your understanding afterward?
posted by Xezlec at 7:09 PM on October 5, 2010

First, you must notice that there is a problem. Then. you must care enough to solve it. Everything afterwards comes naturally.

If case studies help frame this process, then go, case studies.
posted by underflow at 7:44 PM on October 5, 2010

underflow >First, you must notice that there is a problem.

"Necessity is the mother of invention."

One of the first sayings I ever learnt, aged about 4 or 5. Not that my parents or kindergarten teachers were teaching me such abstract ideas. I just happened to be watching a TV game show with mum, and that was a correctly answered question that has stuck with me ever since. Probably didn't even know what it meant until a year or two later.

straw >What Kid Charlemagne said. My mathematics goes beyond what I took (and struggled with) in college because at some point I needed those tools to actually do interesting stuff. That's when I learned it: when I understood the use for it.

Testify. High school calculus was an absolute WTF? drudgery until - about 4/5ths thru the course - it was tied in with physics [mainly mechanics] and all the formulas I was leaning and then it was suddenly: WOAH!

Riki tiki > I was more questioning whether all the quotes I've read attributed to him ARE, IN FACT, really his own work.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:07 AM on October 6, 2010

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