Biology teachers back to the lecture hall
The venerable old biology lecture hall in Badestraße is almost full one Monday evening in February. There are scripts lying on the tables, cycle bags standing on the stairs, and the rows of seats gradually fill up. At first glance, it looks like students waiting for the last lecture of the day to begin. However, one look at the expectant faces in the audience shows that they don’t really seem to fit into the typical audience you might expect. Then neuroscientist Prof. Markus Missler provides the explanation: “Welcome to this lecture for teachers and school students. Today we’re going to be looking at research in molecular neurobiology.”
The more than 100 participants, who look at the slide showing an image of a synapse in the brain, are attending a special lecture series designed by the Collaborative Research Centre 1348 “Dynamic Cellular Interfaces”, a research institution at the University of Münster. The aim of the lectures is to transfer some of the current advance in biology into the classroom. The initiator is biologist Prof. Christian Klämbt, the spokesperson for the Collaborative Research Centre – in which physicians, biologists, biochemists and biophysicists study the exchange of signals and molecules at the contact points of cells. Christian Klämbt is aware that “modern biology is rapidly evolving, and thus in some aspects is different to what today's biology teachers have learned 20 years ago. We do not want to be sitting in the ivory tower, but are obliged to allow teachers to participate in current developments.” This series of lectures started way back in 2007. After its relaunch in this winter semester, seniors taking biology as a main course at school are also invited to attend. For the next years now once a month researchers to talk about aspects of biology and present their latest research findings in an easy-to-understand way.
Today, lecturer Prof. Markus Missler explains how the influx of calcium into synapses of nerve cells is regulated at the molecular level – which Gregor Poell, one of the regulars at these lectures, duly notes down. Gregor Poell, a biology teacher at the local Freiherr-von-Stein school, has been coming since 2011 so that – as he himself says – he can “keep on the ball”. “If I simply taught what is in schoolbooks, I would lag way behind. For example, it takes far too long for a current genome editing method such as CRISPR/Cas9 to turn up in schoolbooks,” he explains. The new knowledge he gains will, after some “didactical reduction”, feed into his lessons at school. But it’s not only about better preparation of school lessons, as he points out: “I want to extend my own horizons. After all, I have to be able to answer any more detailed questions my classes might ask me.”
Even teachers learn lifelong
One of the aims which the University has set itself is that of training academically competent teachers to also be dedicated to the idea of life-long learning – as it says in the current University Development Plan. “We don’t want to drop teachers after they have left university,” says Christian Klämbt. “Teaching should function at all levels.” In other words, the aim is that good university training in a subject should ultimately lead to good teaching in the classroom.
In the second half of the lecture, the people in the audience are still listening with interest, leaning forward, making notes. One of the younger participants forages in a bag for some chocolate. There is the rustling sound of pages being turned simultaneously – which comes from biology teacher Nicola Birkner and her class. Every month, they travel the 30-odd kilometres to Münster after they decided to make attendance at the lectures a fixed part of their curriculum. “Especially at the beginning of the semester, they were all fascinated by the lecture hall at the university, by the actual situation of being in a lecture, by the speed at which lecturers speak,” Nicola Birkner reports. Her 16 to 17-year-old students are still only at the beginning of their final years at school, and there are topics which they do not understand in last detail, but, as she says, “Just absorbing the key points and learning something about the function of molecules is in itself very helpful. Information merges into a larger picture shortly before their school-leaving exams – and then they recognize the benefits of the lectures.” She too enjoys coming back to the lecture hall that she herself sat in as a student 20 years earlier. “As a teacher, it’s nice to be a consumer of information for a change,” she points out.
The lecture is gradually approaching its end. Physician Markus Missler is explaining why his research may also be relevant for neurological diseases neuropsychiatric diseases such as autism. An impressive image illustrating the photographic memory of an autistic person with “savant syndrome” fascinates the listeners. Any questions? None today from the large audience – lectures like this can also be exhausting. Only some untiring listeners discuss further at the speaker’s table. “Living so close to the institutes at the University here is an absolute luxury,” he says. “More institutions should open their doors for events like these. I for one would certainly attend.”
The last lecture of this semester will take place on March 11th at Badestraße 9. Topic: Brave new world? CRISPR, Genomeditierung, gene drive. (in German language)