Faculty Club / Student Engagement / 6 Engaging Strategies to Supplement Dry Science Textbooks

6 Engaging Strategies to Supplement Dry Science Textbooks

To help make complicated medical topics more engaging, Dr. Sandy Westerheide uses a variety of attention-grabbing textbook alternatives.

To help make complicated medical topics more engaging, Dr. Sandy Westerheide uses a variety of attention-grabbing textbook alternatives.

Sandy Westerheide, PhD


Associate Professor of Biology,
University of South Florida, Tampa

PhD in Genetics and Molecular Biology, BA in Biology

Sandy Westerheide, PhD, associate professor of biology at the University of South Florida, does not take a “textbook approach” to teaching her Cancer Biology course. Though she does use a textbook to provide key terminology and concepts, she finds that complementary course materials can be far more engaging for students—and for her.

“It’s a two-way street,” she says. The more she investigates nontraditional teaching methods, the more current (and curious) she remains about new developments in her field. Case in point: A newly acquired interest in popular science books recently led her to pick up the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, which led her to delve more deeply into the connection between insufficient sleep and an increased risk of cancer. Books like this—as well as magazine articles, guest speakers, and other sources—also serve to humanize the subject matter. That is vital, she says, because most of her students are seniors bound for medical school and a career that benefits from an ability to be empathetic.

“I want students to know textbook facts, but I want them to know there are personal stories behind all the facts,” she explains.

Below, Westerheide shares details on the book that changed her way of teaching, as well as other strategies she uses to get students to engage with the material—and each other.

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“Nothing in science is ever done. Nothing is static. We are in an ever-changing and evolving scientific world, and I want students to be aware of that. What they need to know they can’t just learn in a static textbook.”
-Sandy Westerheide, PhD

Course: PCB 4109 Cancer Biology

Course description: This course will focus on the molecular aspects of cancer. Students will gain an understanding of the molecular genetics of cancer, various causative factors of cancer, relevant cell biological processes that go awry in cancer, and different cancer treatment modalities.

6 thoughtful ways to make science more engaging

To kick off the semester, Westerheide shares a bit about her own education (she has a PhD in genetics and molecular biology) as well as her personal interests. She also tells students about her research focus: the molecular importance of the heat shock response on cellular metabolism, aging, and disease. But first, she opens the floor to her class with the following exercise, then continues the trend of “enhanced engagement” with the strategies that follow.

1. Ask about career goals on day one—and make a standing offer

The first step in engaging students, says Westerheide, is showing them that they come first. “Right away, I have students introduce themselves and share their career goals,” says Westerheide. “With a class of 30 to 40 students like this one, you can pull that off, and it gets students talking and engaging.” After they open up, she makes them a standing offer: She will be happy to provide career advice at any point during class. That is key, she says, because she has seen many students experience a change of heart midsemester.

2. Find a moving counterpart to a fact-based textbook

Westerheide credits her economics-professor father with this next idea: Supplementing textbook readings with works of contemporary nonfiction. Specifically, in the cancer course, she uses the Pulitzer Prize–wining book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. “The book conveys that there are people behind the scientific discoveries, and none of the discoveries have been easy,” she says. “There is also a story of a patient being treated for cancer that is woven throughout the book, making it more personal and relevant for students.”

Throughout the semester, she has students write (even in bullet points, if they prefer) summaries of various sections, which she believes enhances their learning, and she sometimes includes the book in exam questions or assigns an opinion essay based on it. Several students have told her that reading this book influenced their career choices.

3. Provide frequent lecture breaks so students can join the conversation

Westerheide has found that it is more effective to teach complex scientific material in digestible chunks of 10 to 15 minutes, after which she opens up the class to discussion. She asks questions of students to keep them engaged and to spark what she wants to be a two-way conversation.

“I’ve read that no one can focus for more than 10 to 15 minutes, so that’s how I came up with the time frame,” she says. “I don’t want students zoning out. I also infuse these mini lectures with my enthusiasm for the material, and enthusiasm is contagious.”

4. Form Think-Pair-Share groups (quickly!) before students get stuck

During class discussions, Westerheide sometimes pairs or groups students quickly if she asks a question that she knows is a little more complicated than usual. “I give students time to think about a response with a partner or team,” she says. She learned about the Think-Pair-Share approach at a teaching workshop at the University of South Florida. (To learn more, read the Faculty Club article “Tackle Complex Subjects with the Think-Pair-Share Model.”) “When you start talking and get your ideas out, that’s when you have more aha! moments of clarity about the information,” she adds.

5. Spark interest in current news with a mini-presentation assignment

“Cancer in the News” is a recent addition to Westerheide’s approaches, and it requires students to give a mini presentation on a recent cancer-related article that they found in a newspaper, magazine, or scientific journal. These talks each last for five minutes and are used to start each class (Westerheide does not want the presenters to spend the whole class period in nervous anticipation). Recent examples include discussions of new early markers for prostate cancer and of a new viral therapy for retinoblastoma (eye tumors).

6. Invite guest lecturers for their unique perspectives

At the end of the semester, Westerheide sets aside time for some guest lectures by a professor from Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center who specializes in radiation oncology. This timing helps ensure that students have a solid understanding of scientific basics before the guest lecturer arrives. (This means that they can better follow what the lecturer is saying—and they can ask better questions at the end of the talk.)

“Having someone who really treats patients with the types of cancer and therapies that we explore in class will bring the topic to life in ways that nothing else can,” she says. This type of real-world guest star also reinforces her message that science is always changing.

“Students need to understand that the value of memorizing is limited, because the information they’re learning is ever-evolving,” says Westerheide. “Where we are going is anyone’s guess.”

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