Microbiologist Amy Vollmer on "Adopting" a Pathogen
Small Things Considered: ‘Adopting’ a Pathogen
At the Small Things Considered blog, Professor of Microbiology Amy Vollmer shares her course assignment to “adopt” a pathogen. She has found the assignment to be a great way to address many of the challenges that comes with teaching microbiology. She writes:
“Teaching microbiology is a terrific opportunity not just to introduce students to the world of microbes but also to help them to become critical thinkers and life-long learners. The challenges for us teachers are numerous: textbooks are getting thicker, yet the length of the semester is not increasing. How do we balance a sense of history with current discoveries? How can students absorb the diversity of species? How can we buttress key principle and concepts without just repeating ourselves? How can students ‘own’ rather than 'rent' the knowledge?"
"[T]here are a couple of assignments that address diverse audiences. The first is a press release, to be issued as if their adopted pathogen were now to cause an epidemic. Students read aloud their press releases. In some years, I devote lab time to ‘press conferences,’ where peers ask each student 3 questions after reading the press release. Other years, students work together to produce pamphlets for the third grade reading level. The subject of the pamphlets must be carefully vetted, and ‘scary’ and sexually transmitted pathogens are ruled out. My students have come up with great topics like the importance of hand washing, vaccines (not just for kids but for pets), ‘plants can get sick, too,’ water purity, food safety. The theme is still generally microbiological, but what is key is the appropriateness of the subject.
Vollmer writes that she regularly hears that writing for this young audience is by far the most difficult part of the assignment, but students have also been inspired by the challenge: "A few told me that working on this assignment convinced them to enroll in education courses, spend some time teaching after college, or go into writing/illustrating science books aimed at children or the general public."
Vollmer concludes that after 32 years of teaching, she continues to be impressed by the energy her students bring to this assignment. She writes, "They are about [the assignments] because they establish some kind of personal connection to their adopted pathogen."
Isaac H. Clothier, Jr. Professor of Biology Amy Vollmer received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Rice University and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She conducted postdoctoral research in immunology at Stanford University and served on the faculty at Mills College before joining the faculty at Swarthmore in 1989.