Making Microbe Connections Through the Use of Humor, Games and Storytelling in Teaching

June 17, 2020

I teach a general microbiology course for biology majors which also has a few engineering, chemistry and other majors. The majority of students are interested in health professions, so the obvious connection that draws them to the microbial world is infectious disease. The challenge is building connections to the depth and breadth of the microbial sciences in ways that make the topics interesting and relevant. I know what excited me about the microbial world, but I am keenly aware that my students are not me. I share with them my career path and how I became fascinated with microbes, but I want to allow them to find their own paths to microbial enlightenment through humor, games and storytelling.

So, how do we help students build connections? Asking a microbiologist “What’s your favorite microbe?” is somewhat like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. For me, the answer is pretty easy–Sarcina ventriculli. This is my favorite because I see it as “‘MY’crobe.” This article is about how educators can help students take ownership of their learning by building their own connections and finding their ‘My’crobes. 

Building Connections to the Microbial Sciences Through Storytelling

As an undergraduate student at Michigan State University,  I took a microbial diversity course. Each student in the lab was assigned a microbe that they had to enrich for and isolate, and provide evidence that they isolated the correct species. My assignment was to isolate Sarcina ventriculi, and since then it has been ‘My’crobe. This was the first time I had an opportunity to dig into the literature, ask my own questions and design experiments. Unfortunately, that was my last quarter of my last year. Why did it take so long to have that kind of experience? Of course, this was long before the Vision and Change report stressed the importance of early and consistent exposure to active learning experiences.

When I share stories with students, my goal is not to encourage them to follow my path but to show them how to find their own path. My stories are as much about my own mistakes as they are about the successes and the people I’ve met along the way. To me, it is important to let them know the human side of science and to assure them my perspective is only one of many and their perspectives are valued. I explain that the courses I teach are not my courses; they are their courses, and I love learning from my students as much as I hope they love learning from me. 

One of my favorite ways of making a course theirs is the way I teach microbial diversity. Rather than an encyclopedic trip through microbial taxonomy, I ask each student to pick any microbe they want to learn about (first come, first served so I don’t get 10 reports on Deinococcus radiodurans–a very popular choice). I ask them to write a report on that organism and share their report with the rest of the class. The project is called “‘My’crobe” based on a wonderful “B.C.” cartoon by Johnny Hart about looking for microbes under a rock. I encourage creativity and get reports in the form of creative drawings, cartoons, infographics and even personal ads for a microbe. What’s important is that these are THEIR microbes and a way to show their own interests and contribute to the class in their own way.

Building Connections to the Microbial Sciences Through Games

Similarly, games are a great way to help students build connections. Developing strategies to play a game encourages a deeper exploration and understanding of the implications of various characteristics of an organism or a process. I had a great opportunity to learn about this through Katherine Lontok, Scientific & Digital Editor at ASM. She developed a game for learning how our defenses battle pathogens, and I tested the game in my own classes. The students found it to be a fun and effective way to learn about how our bodies' defenses work against various pathogens; more importantly, it raised questions they wanted to explore further. 

Another great activity to spark connections for the general public or with students is a game called “What Microbe Am I?” which uses a dichotomous key to identify microorganisms with characteristics similar to those of the player. I probably have too much fun approaching strangers at a science festival and asking them if they have an “infectious personality” to encourage them to try out the activity to identify their microbial doppelganger. The original version of the game was developed by the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) to draw connections to marine microbes and ASM developed a human microbiome version of the game.

Building Connections to the Microbial Sciences Through Humor

Cartoons and animations are a great way to make challenging concepts accessible or to encourage thoughtful reflection. Cartoonists/animators such as the Amoeba Sisters have developed a delightful collection of cartoons and animations for science concepts. While they are geared toward the K-12 community (middle school students love this after I tell them I got to meet the Amoeba Sisters at ASM Microbe), their cartoons can be a great springboard for discussion. Students will also reference these cartoons when talking to non-scientist friends and family.

Since I began teaching I would start each class by showing a cartoon while students are wandering in and I am setting up the computer for class. The cartoon usually has some connection to the day’s topic and often sparks casual conversations among the students. The cartoons I use come from a variety of sources, and I make sure they are properly cited. One of my favorite sources is the wonderful book “What’s So Funny About Microbiology?” by Joachim Czichos. I was first introduced to this book as a postdoc in Göttingen, Germany, and it has stuck with me to this day. Several years ago, I started adding an automated slide show with the day’s cartoon, announcements, reminders and wellness advice–like the coming attractions you see in a movie theater. This turned out to be a great way to remind students about deadlines, upcoming events and provide wellness resources. For students who are not able to get to class early enough for these announcements, they are also posted in our campus Learning Management System. The slide show is so popular that it was one of the first things students really wanted me to keep when we moved to online teaching.

The take-home message is not really about humor, games and storytelling but about connections. The strategies I describe in this article are not about entertaining students for entertainment’s sake. I am not nearly as funny as I think I am, I am terrible at games and I don’t really tell great stories, but I try because that is my personality. We all have different approaches to teaching, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. What is most important is being yourself. Be willing to share your story and model how you draw connections in the microbial sciences and then enable your students to draw their own. 

A few years ago I had the pleasure of putting together a session for the ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) with 3 wonderful colleagues, Mark Martin from the University of Puget Sound, Phil Mixter from Washington State University and Ruth Gyure from Western Connecticut State University. The title of the session was “That’s EDUtainment.” As we prepared for the session, Phil shared a wonderful essay he had written to explain that, yes, education can be entertaining, but it still has to be about our learning objectives. Teaching should always be about the learning objectives. Our role is to clearly state the objectives, guide students to achieve the objectives and assess them appropriately. As long as we are doing that, why not make the process fun and entertaining?
Dr. Dave Westenberg, a Carski awardee, is a plenary speaker for the Virtual ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE). His interactive presentation on Thursday, July 9 will have examples and ideas on how to use humor, storytelling and games in the classroom. ASMCUE is for microbiology and biology educators to learn about best practices and classroom strategies and hear biology education research updates. Plan to join us for ASMCUE Virtual, July 8-9! It's free for ASM members (except for supporting members).

Author: Dave Westenberg, Ph.D.

Dave Westenberg, Ph.D.
Dr. Dave Westenberg is Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology.