Course puts biochemistry students in real-world situations,
teaching lessons they won't find in textbooks or the lab.
When students enroll in Jonathan Dattelbaum's biochemistry course at the University of Richmond, they expect to learn about the basics of the field. But Dattelbaum's course is about the unexpected, and that's on purpose. Community-based learning extends the learning experience for students outside the classroom through interactions with the public. Here, Dattelbaum, an associate professor of chemistry and co-director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Richmond, reflects on how sending students out into the world has proved to be a valuable teaching pedagogy.
Biochemistry students, from left, Caroline O'Rourke, Tran Doan and Miles Johnson participated in the community-based learning module established by University of Richmond associate professor Jonathan Dattelbaum.
Community-based learning experiences take many forms, including bringing in speakers from the community, producing documentaries, teaching course materials in primary and secondary schools, or conducting field work. I chose service learning, because it provides an excellent umbrella for student exploration of the connections between textbook concepts and real-world applications, particularly for medical and biotechnological fields.
Many science faculty members believe that science is learned by doing. Refining what it means to be actively engaged in teaching science is important for our students as they move through the curriculum and into the workforce.
In the sciences, one of the most common formats for active teaching is the lab-based science class, in which students learn important hands-on skills and applications. More recently, many schools have invested in undergraduate research programs that enhance experiential collaborations between students and faculty. While learning laboratory skills is an important part of science education, many science majors will not become research laboratory scientists. I believe that finding ways to develop life skills, such as studying the application of science in society, learning more about community and working with different population sectors, requires creating learning opportunities outside of traditional laboratory-based courses.
Building the course
The process for developing a community-based learning experience began as part of a biochemistry laboratory section I was teaching as a first-year faculty member. The goal was to provide a complementary learning experience for students and not to replace specific laboratory material.
This teaching module was developed in consultation with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. I wanted to challenge the biochemistry lab students to take part in community-based service where biochemistry plays a role. The pilot project asked students to complete at least three hours of service in the Richmond community at one of four selected organizations: the American Lung Association of Virginia, the CrossOver Clinic, the March of Dimes' Central Virginia Division and the National Kidney Foundation of the Virginias.