Role-play winning teaching formula

1 September 2013

Turning science into stories and mini-dramas has won Unitec nursing school science lecturer Sue White a Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award for 2013. FIONA CASSIE talks to her about science, storytelling, and helping nursing students discover the scientist within.

One nursing student draped in paper towels, another playing Cupid, and a third flexing his fingers ready to grab and grope …

What is the lesson here you might ask? If you answered ‘muscle contraction theory’, go right to the top of the class.

Sue White has been teaching anatomy and physiology to nursing students for 25 years and for many of those years she has been pulling volunteers from the lecture theatre to act out role-plays to bring complex science concepts to life.

Some of us may struggle to recall that when sacroplasmic reticulum releases calcium, it removes the blocking action of tropomyosin, allowing the thick filaments of myosin to bind with the thin filaments of actin so your muscle can contract.

But call a female nursing student Actin and wrap her in paper towels (tropomyosin), add a male student called Myosin with grabbing hands, and then call on another student to play Cupid (calcium) to shift the towels allowing Myosin to “grab” Actin’s binding sites and pull her into his arms before abandoning her to grab another student called Actin and then another… well, you may never flex a muscle again without seeing your groping classmate.

More importantly, White says if she can hook in students both emotionally and intellectually, they are more likely to leave the classroom and joke about the role-play with their classmates and maybe talk about it with their families.

The more they talk about what they did in class, the repetition will help the scientific information imbedded in the lecture to stick.

White also gets the whole 180-student class to stand-up and role-play being a bacteria to illustrate why you need to complete a whole course of antibiotics rather than just stop when a person feels better. So on ‘day one’ of the antibiotic course, she ‘kills off’ the most susceptible bacteria (asks them to sit down) and continues to ‘knock off more until about ‘day five’ just a few of the toughest ‘bacteria’ are left standing and the ‘patient’ is not surprisingly feeling chirpier.

The role-play brings home to the students that to stop antibiotics at that point allows the most antibiotic-resistant members of the bacteria population to live on and replicate to fight another day. You definitely remember being bacteria that was ‘snuffed out’ or lived on.

“I have met students years later who still remember the stuff they acted out in class,” says White. “Even ten years down the track.”

Unexpected ‘nursing’ career

It is finding the key to help each student learn that keeps White excited about teaching nursing students more than 25 years since stumbling unexpectedly into the nursing arena.

She had contemplated nursing as a career growing up but her Dad vetoed that option, saying nurses weren’t paid enough. He wasn’t keen on her being an archaeologist or a teacher, either, but was keen on the sciences, and she found herself training as a cardiopulmonary technician at Greenlane Hospital and gaining her New Zealand Certificate in Science.

Returning from her OE to Rotorua, she applied for a technician job at Waiariki’s then-new school of nursing and found herself persuaded to teach science instead.

Introduced to the world of care plans and nursing philosophy, she has never left it and made teaching science to nursing students her career, gaining an MSc in science education from Perth’s Curtin University via distance learning.

In the early days of teaching, she feared being asked to move on as she wasn’t a “stuffy academic”.

“Which sounds really stupid now, having won this award.

“I think part of my success is because I have to make it very real for the students, and because I wasn’t a straight A student myself, I change complex concepts and simplify them for the students so everybody can track along with what I am saying.”

White also loves what she does – and while the nursing school lecturer has taught students other than nursing students, it is the nursing students she is fondest of.

“I think nursing students are a special group … they are there because they have a passion for nursing, they are motivated, and they are really nice people on the whole.”

Once entering the lecture theatre, she tripped and fell after catching her toe in the hem of her skirt.

“I know in most classes the students would just have laughed and giggled but in my class of nursing students they all came rushing over to help me and check out I was alright, and for me, that encapsulates the difference between nursing students and some other students.”

But while nursing students often arrive with a strong sense of empathy for people, the predominantly female students don’t always have a natural inclination towards science. Many arrive either having a poor, or little, experience of science.

“I wanted to introduce my students to the wonder and excitement that science offers them rather than to the scary side of it.”

Her philosophy is to try and apply the science to their lives, and as a teacher of anatomy and physiology, the big plus is that everybody has a body and most people are interested to find out more about how it works.

“I’m on a winner there, really”.

So she introduces and illustrates a concept – with role-plays or real life horror or funny stories of science in action in the clinical environment – while blending in the scientific knowledge they need to absorb.

Science as yet another language

This includes learning a myriad of new scientific terms. This creates another teaching challenge at Unitec, where 70 per cent of the nursing students already have English as an additional language, 60 per cent are new New Zealanders, 30 per cent have had their high school education overseas, and large numbers are the first in their family to go into formal tertiary education.

“These students are already coming into nursing with potential cultural and language barriers.”

Some science educators say starting learning science requires a student to learn as many new terms as learning French.

“The language (of science) is a barrier anyway, if you add that to the barrier of having English as a second language it becomes incredibly difficult for these students.”

She tries to get round any language barriers and finds that developing alternative ways of presenting concepts to students with English as a second language – like role-plays – benefits all students.

White also makes a conscious effort to establish a relationship with each of her students and to get to know their individual barriers to learning so she can help them overcome them. As what keeps teaching fresh after 25 years is the changing faces in front of her and their individual needs.

“For me, they are not just the student cohort of 2013, they are a collection of individuals.”

With 180 students in an anatomy and physiology class, it sounds a big ask, but in the first week, she photographs them all and works on getting to know them by name – helped by also doing small group teaching during the students’ two-hour science labs each week.

“You don’t win them all over – some are resistant or don’t engage,” says White. Or study loses out when students try to juggle family, study and work commitments.

Winning formula

However, her strategy is working, with the vast majority of nursing students with her average pass rates comparing very well with international benchmarks of similar nursing science courses.

White’s style has definitely won-over her students. Students have voted her best department lecturer every year bar one since 2005, along with winning best overall Unitec lecturer in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

As one student put it: “I’m excited about science for the first time in my life.”

White has shown that a little role-play can go a long way in making the driest of science fun.