I’ve been teaching introductory biology labs for several semesters now and if there’s one thing that I learned it’s that you have a limited time to teach your students the current week’s material before they get bored. Most of the time, this is not an issue as students have already become familiar with the topic thanks to the lecture. As such, lab lecture is more or less reminding students of the material and less of teaching them something new. After a short introduction we get right into the lab and have some fun.
But for the times when the lab is covering something new, things can get a little tricky. I heard somewhere before that you have five minutes to teach your students the pre-lab material before they begin to zone out. Five minutes, unfortunately, is painfully short and as such, I try to mix things up as best as I can so my pupils can continue to remain engaged (one time I even dressed up as a Eukaryotic cell and asked my students what each of my organelles do to keep me alive).
Such as the case two weeks ago when we tackled the vertebrate diversity lab. One of my favorite labs ever, the students were divided into three groups and each group dissected three different vertebrates; a lamprey, a dogfish, a perch, a mudpuppy, a frog, an anoles lizard, a turtle, a pigeon, and a rat. These animals represented the numerous broad groups of vertebrates; agnathans, chondrichthyes, osteichthyes, amphibians, squamates, turtles, archosaurs, and mammals. The overall message for that week’s lab, through the dissection of the nine animals, was that vertebrates have all evolved from a simple body plan to accommodate their environment and lifestyles.
Now, on the whiteboard, I had drawn a simplified version of a vertebrate phylogenetic tree as provided to the students by their lab book. However, as I was talking about each group of animals, I would slap on a printed-out picture of a Pokémon as an example of that animal such as Eelektross for agnathans.
Eelektross is always the first animal/Pokémon I would use as it represents the first branch off of the tree. Immediately, once I place this Electric-type Pokémon on the tree, everyone sits up and takes notice. I like to think that I have jarred them out of their sleepy, spaced-out zone and thrust them into something that they don’t know about (if they’re not Pokémon fans) or have much interest in (if they are Pokémon fans). Even if they’re not familiar with Pokémon, I would give my students a real life example of that animal it represents (lampreys) and then explain what sets this animal apart from all the other animals in the small phylum. After doing so, I would continue to the other animal branches and elaborate what makes them so special all the while continuing to slap on example Pokémon on the whiteboard.
Besides doing this for comedic sake, I like to use Pokémon for two reasons. One, using Pokémon is a way to get students interested in the subject manner at hand. Many of my students are pre-Med or pharmaceutical majors and that’s totally fine. But here, at the doorstep of all that is biology, where students are exposed to so many different topics that they will never tackle again in their future, I try my damnedest to show them how awesome those weird and unique topics are even if they may be as seemingly uninteresting as plants or population genetics. I know I will not convince many of my students to change their chosen path in life but if I have just one student that just stopped and ponder briefly whether they should pursue another topic in biology because of my lab, then I have succeeded. Using Pokémon is just one of many ways I try to generate excitement of all that is biology (paleontology is another one as well, of course).
The second reason why I like to use Pokémon is that I try to encourage a friendly, welcoming environment in my lab. I like to have a lab where people can be themselves. My icebreaker question even sets the tone for my labs as I ask each of my students what they’re nerdy about. Let me tell you, this question is great as I get to learn so much from my students and I get to relate to them for that particular hobby at hand or a hobby that’s close to it. I even like to chat to them as the semester progresses about certain news that may pertain to their nerdy hobby such as a recent episode in Game of Thrones or a movie update for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Be yourself and be open to new ideas. As gimmicky as these may sound, I adhere to them like a barnacle on a hard substrate. I don’t know how well these two ideas have been picked up by my students, but I will say that they…I don’t want to necessary say “enjoy”…but certainly like my labs judging by my evaluations. I hope though in the long run, maybe 10 or even 20 years from now, they’ll remember my lab lectures and one day recall, while playing Trivia Pursuit, that Mantine is a manta ray and all manta rays are chondrichthyes and then they’ll win the game! But I’m just fantasizing at this point.