Biology Professor Sings Lectures to Help Students Learn

Try as you might, but you aren’t likely to forget the chorus of your favorite ditty.  Similarly, students in Cheryl Van Buskirk’s class won’t forget the content of their biology lessons, even if they try.

Especially because they spend some of their class time singing it.

As a postdoctoral fellow working in a large laboratory, Van Buskirk started writing songs on her guitar to perform for colleagues at their farewell parties.  The songs were about their research projects, and often contained rhyming biology terminology.

“I did this for a friend of mine, and was surprised how much people loved to listen to these songs,” she says. “I thought to myself, maybe I should try to incorporate that into teaching.”

Van Buskirk knows that her course material can be difficult for students to memorize. (Her own research focuses on nematode worms, which she studies to learn about genes that control behavior.) So she decided to test the singing method out on her Biology 100 students.

The result: Freshmen in her Biology 100 class (Introductory Biology) and juniors and seniors in her Biology 360 class (Genetics) think it’s a hit, she says.

“By hearing the songs a few times over and over, and having some fun, you come to understand the concepts, and are more likely to want to learn more about them,” she says.  “If you don’t understand the phrase in the song, you might actually look it up and see what it’s about.”

To complement the music, Van Buskirk creates animated video tutorials to further explain biology terminology and concepts. Other biology teachers have started using the videos in their own classes.

“Now they want me to come in and sing in their class with them,” Van Buskirk says. “Jonathan Kelber is a new faculty member in Biology who actually plays the bass guitar, so we’re planning a duet.”

As a student, Van Buskirk noticed that by writing and singing songs, she learned the subject matter more fully. So in her first semester, she encouraged her biology students to write poems or songs that covered material from the chapters they were studying, which many students were happy to do.

The singing method is going viral in the Biology Department. Several times a semester, Van Buskirk joins Biology professors Mary-Pat Stein, Cindy Malone and Maria Elena de Bellard to sing and dance about glucose metabolism in front of students in Biology 107 (Biological Principles II).

Van Buskirk received funding from CSUN ScholarWorks that allowed her to record a high-quality Biology Through Song package for everyone to access.

“I’m very appreciative that this program exists,” she says. “I hope that in the future more of these grants will be available for faculty to develop these fun and crazy projects!”

Now that she’s seen the value of the songs in her biology class, Van Buskirk hopes she can create songs for other classes as well. She may even spice up the method.

“I think I’d like to add in some dance moves next time,” Van Buskirk says. “I don’t know how to do some sort of interpretive dance to glycolysis, but there’s probably a way.”

One thought on “Biology Professor Sings Lectures to Help Students Learn

  1. Sally Spencer

    Wow. This is absolutely FABULOUS. I can’t wait to show it to my special education teaching candidates. This is Universal Design for Learning at its best. Thank you, Cheryl, for this inspiring work. If you ever want to expand it into the K-12 teaching arena, please contact me!

    Sally Spencer, Department of Special Education


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