Science Professor Pushes Critical Thinking With Case Studies

December 12, 2008 | Borough of Manhattan Community College

On a mundane weeknight this past summer, Brahmadeo Dewprashad was at home watching the nightly news, as he normally does, when his interest was piqued. The newscaster was reporting a story about acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol® — and its relation to liver toxicity, when the BMCC science professor had an idea: incorporating this story into his teaching.

“When I looked closer, I found out there was an organic mechanism that explained it,” said Dewprahshad, who teaches organic and biological chemistry. “Right away I got working on a case study for my students where I could talk about liver toxicity and acetaminophen in a real life scenario.”

Organic Chemistry and Case Studies

Dewprashad, in his seventh year, admits that his job is a tough one. Organic chemistry isn’t the most attractive subject even for science students. But he argues it is important and relevant to their studies and lives.

“Organic chemistry is really about organic molecules, and we are all made up of molecules,” he said. “So, in essence, organic chemistry is really about our lives at the molecular level.”

Moreover, Dewprashad argues that organic chemistry has to be relevant to his students’ lives to attract their interest. The majority of students taking Dewprashad’s class pursue further studies in the biological sciences, not the chemical sciences, he said.

The real problem Dewprashad says, is that the commonly used textbooks for organic chemistry are dry and do not make a clear connection between organic reaction mechanisms and biological systems. The result: students do not grasp the fundamental concepts and resort to memorizing specifics for a particular test. For Dewprashad, this is where case studies come into play.

Case studies allow the students to “actually see how the material I teach relates to them,” he said. “Instead of lecturing, I have students take a real life scenario and try to figure out the organic mechanisms.”

In one of his latest case studies — titled “Cats Have Nine Lives, But Only One Liver: The Effects of Acetaminophen” — a student gives her cat half of a Tylenol® tablet not knowing its potential harmful effects. The cat survives, but the incident motivates her to research the reaction mechanism underlying the liver toxicity of acetaminophen. The case study was later published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Science College Teaching. And Dewprashad said case studies like this one have changed the way students think about organic chemistry.

“Students are now coming into the class asking me about new case studies. They look forward to them,” he said. “And I see that they help connect students to one another. You might have some students who don’t know each other, but when they get into this group environment, they’re all adding parts together, and in time, the class becomes one.”

Producing Critical Thinkers

“One of the ideas in the course is that students should use scientific evidence – focus on the factual when determining an outcome,” Dewprashad said. “It’s not something they learn to just repeat back, but they can make a decision based on evidence.”

Students, Dewprashad said, need to learn to “read literature, understand, apply it, and come to their own conclusions,” because this kind of thinking is also valued outside of science.

“When you get a job in a profession, you’re paid to use the knowledge to make decisions,” said Dewprashad. “It’s not so much about merely digesting the facts, but being able to use them to diagnose situations, and come up with a plan.”

“The value of knowledge,” he said in the spirit of a philosopher, “is in how you use it.”