CSUN Biology Professor Puts the Fun Back in Learning

Associate biology professor Mary-Pat Stein maintains a simple philosophy with her students: “If I’m not having fun, you’re probably not having fun, either.”

For Stein, students who enjoy what they are learning — and how they are learning it — are far more likely to retain information. So, don’t be surprised when walking by Stein’s classroom to hear singing or the use of games and innovative technology.

Stein’s inspiration for her creative teaching style started with one of her graduate school professors, whom she recalls standing on a desk and “contorting her body to mimic a molecule of DNA.” That professor’s unorthodox display piqued the interest of even the most disconnected students in her class.

Following that lead, Stein has offered extra credit to biology students who would write and perform a cover song with biology-themed lyrics. For another project, Stein challenged her BIOL 485 (Immunology) students to creatively teach their classmates about a specific topic. One of her students used stuffed animals to demonstrate how T cells, dendritic cells and immunological synapses form.

“Learning by teaching is really the greatest way to learn,” Stein says. “Teaching biology has given me a much better foundation in the basics of biology than I had while I was doing my dissertation work.”

Some of her students have even taken popular games like Twister, Bingo and Battleship and turned them into biology-themed teaching tools.

“This sort of creativity and the product that gets made gives the students really deep learning,” Stein says. “They learn the subject better by creating the project, and then they reinforce their knowledge by explaining it in front of the classroom. The students don’t forget these things.”

Stein also embraces new technology as a valuable teaching tool for her students. She uses programs like SoftChalk and Camtasia to “flip her classroom,” allowing her to expand on important concepts during in-class lectures by offering other content online.

“Flipping the classroom enhances our students’ experience by giving them twice as much teaching,” Stein says. “They learn about cell biology concepts at home, then have it reinforced in the classroom by applying it in a totally different way. Putting those two things together is the key to getting students to connect the content to the real world.”

One of Stein’s favorite iPad apps, Educreations, transforms her iPad into a digital whiteboard. She uploads her lessons to YouTube so her students can follow along, similar to watching Khan Academy lessons.

“With Educreations, my students get extra material they can view over, and over and over,” Stein says. “I post these on YouTube so they can find them and use them to their advantage.”

Stein’s success with tools like Educreations, she says, is a testament to the type of learning modern students benefit from the most.

“I think the more technology we can use to get to our students to learn in different ways, the better off we’re going to be,” Stein says.

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