By Rob Mitchum
Photo by Beth Rooney

It’s our challenge not only to teach these students a certain number of facts, but to show them why those facts are important, relevant, and worth thinking about throughout life.”
—Mark Osadjan

Mark Osadjan’s lab section has a strange dress code: running shorts, T-shirts, and gym shoes. How else will the students push their metabolism to the limit on one of the laboratory’s treadmills?

This experience is far from the typical science fare. But Osadjan believes that tailoring his undergraduate courses to undergraduate priorities helps make science more relevant to students’ lives.

“I like to be able to meet the students at their interest and guide them from there,” Osadjan says. “I think our job as teachers is to figure out how to lead the students to be interested in these subjects, rather than making it feel like checking off a list.”

Biology course grows in size, scope

When Osadjan moved to UChicago from the University of Colorado in 2003, he expected to be teaching mostly advanced-level courses for biology majors. But he quickly found his coursework tilting toward classes for non-majors fulfilling their core biology requirements, beginning with “The Biology of Gender” he originated in 2004.

Over its eight years, Osadjan’s course has grown from 16 students to more than 100 this past year. Over that time, Osadjan says he has learned how to facilitate conversation instead of the traditional lecture format of most science classes. Students learn about genetics, evolution, and physiology through the prism of sexuality, and bring their own perspectives from history, political science, or gender studies to the class discussion. Each year, Osadjan takes ideas from the students’ final papers to find new topics for the following year: The biology of transgender and the evolution of the menstrual cycle are two recent examples.

“The gender part is a hook, to get students interested,” Osadjan says, “because any time you mention sex or sexuality or gender issues, people really want to hear about it.”

Exercising mind and body

In 2007, Osadjan created another course, this time for biology majors and non-majors alike. Together with Paul Strieleman, he designed a two-quarter “Exercise and Nutrition” sequence, for which Osadjan teaches the first half, “Metabolism and Exercise.” Again, the goal is to approach science via a favorite activity of undergraduate students — in this case, staying thin or getting buff.

Instead of merely memorizing the steps of glycolysis, Osadjan has students come to his Biological Sciences Learning Center laboratory and use a treadmill or stationary bike while wearing a mask and sensors attached to computers. Students measure what happens to their heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and metabolism during exercise and learn how to burn carbohydrates or fat. The most fulfilling result, Osadjan says, is when students develop their own ideas for research projects, or contact him long after the class has ended with a scientific newspaper or magazine article that has caught their interest.

“It’s always a trick to figure out how to teach with enough enthusiasm, such that it spills over to the students,” Osadjan says. “It’s our challenge not only to teach these students a certain number of facts, but to show them why those facts are important, relevant, and worth thinking about throughout life.”

Originally published on May 27, 2011.