Case based learning

Albert Einstein once articulated what many scholars have felt in their own work: The history of scientific and technical discovery teaches us the human race is poor in independent thinking and creative imagination. Even when the external and scientific requirements for the birth of an idea have long been there, it generally needs an external stimulus to make it actually happen; man has, so to speak, to stumble right up against the thing before the right idea comes. The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University [html][pdf]

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Science education in the United States has been faulted by politicians, laymen, and scientists. 

Case studies as a teaching technique:

Although the case method has been used for years to teach law, business, and medicine, it is not common in science. Yet the use of case studies holds great promise as a pedagogical technique for teaching science, particularly to undergraduates, because it humanizes science and well illustrates scientific methodology and values. It develops students’ skills in group learning, speaking, and critical thinking, and since many of the best cases are based on contemporary—and often contentious—science problems that students encounter in the news (such as human cloning), the use of cases in the classroom makes science relevant.

At the University at Buffalo, we have been experimenting with case studies in science courses for over 15 years. We have found the method to be amazingly flexible. It has been used as the core of entire courses such as “Scientific Inquiry” or for single experiences in otherwise traditional lecture and lab courses. Cases dealing with cold fusion, AIDS, acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic waste disposal have been used with undergraduates, graduates, and students in professional schools. A case on cystic fibrosis has been used in small laboratory sections run by teaching assistants and a case on the spotted owl has been employed in a large class of over 400 students. In our experience, students exposed to the case method have been extraordinarily excited and actively involved in their learning.

The aim of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science is to promote the development and dissemination of innovative materials and sound educational practices for case teaching in the sciences. Our website provides access to an award-winning library of case materials and we offer a variety of opportunities, including a five-day summer workshop and two-day fall conference, for science faculty to receive training in the method. Our work has been supported over the years by the National Science Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Department of Education.

Robert Merry (1954) has written that the case process is inductive rather than deductive. He adds “The focus is on students learning through their joint, cooperative effort, rather than on the teacher conveying his/her views to students.” Charles Gragg (1953) wrote a captivating article entitled “Because Wisdom Can’t be Told,” in which he stressed that the purpose of case teaching is to develop analytical and decision-making skills. Erskine et al. (1981) noted that students “are developing in the classroom, a whole set of skills of speaking, debating and resolving issues. They are also gaining a sense of confidence in themselves and relating to their peers.” I would add that the use of case studies in science should encourage students to critically appraise stories about science they hear through the media, to have a more positive attitude about science, to understand the process of science and its limitations, and to be able to ask more critical questions during public policy debates.

In short, the goal in most of our case method teaching is not so much to teach the content of science (although that does clearly happpen) but to teach how the process of science works and to develop higher-order skills of learning. Looking at Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of cognitive learning, we focus less on “knowledge” than on comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Cases seem ideally suited to illustrate the relevance of science in society. Cases are equally suited to the collaborative/cooperative learning format in small groups but can easily be used in large discussion classes, as exemplified in law and business schools. They can even be adapted for megaclasses of students.

Case studies are stories with an educational message. They have been used as parables and cautionary tales for centuries, yet their formal use in the science classroom is recent. So recent, in fact, that until the early 1990s the case study literature in science was virtually non-existent. Until this time, faculty had neither taught with cases, written cases, nor seen one. This only began to change as more and more faculty realized inadequacies of the lecture method and began to seek novel methods of instruction. Enter the case study, a method imported from business, law, and medical schools.


National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Case Collection
-large collection of case studies, and resources materials

Other Case Collections -links to databases of case studies from other institutions and organizations, in many fields, business, science, engineering, many more

Related Sites/Further Reading

Case Study sources

The Day They Turned The Falls On:
The Invention Of The Universal Electrical Power System

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