Using Pop Culture to Teach Introductory Biology

Article excerpt

Our students are captivated by the characters, storylines, and gossip provided by pop culture (television, movies, magazines, books, sports, music, advertisements, and the Internet). They always seem more engaged when we incorporate examples and analogies from popular culture into our lectures. This seems especially true regarding non-majors biology students--a demographic group most instructors find challenging to teach because many of these students are frustrated and bored with the topic of biology. In accordance with these observations, I believe that pop culture references can be used as an effective pedagogical platform and have the potential to reshape the approach taken by many professors to teach introductory biology.

Why Refer to Pop Culture?

Many students find their first college biology class intimidating, confusing, or boring, and as a result, fail to retain much information or express an educated opinion on these topics. These frustrated students go elsewhere to learn more about the biological topics that interest them. Based on national polls (Media Central, 2000), college students are much more likely to use the Internet to retrieve information than go to the library. Whereas the Internet provides them with megabytes of biological information, it also provides megabytes of misinformation at the click of a button. With this in mind, we should aim to make our college classrooms an engaging, interactive, educational environment for these students. Of course, we should also strive to facilitate their learning, encourage their critical thinking, and improve their communication skills. Pop culture provides an ideal medium with which we can achieve these goals.

In my non-majors biology classes, I make sure I present the same vocabulary, hard facts, and concepts as do the other professors, but I do so via storytelling, role-playing, critique, and farce. At times, my classroom is much like a TV show in itself. (For example, to demonstrate exponential growth in my class, I refer to a classic episode of Star Trek ["The Trouble With Tribbles"] in which scientific Spock calculated the growth rate of fictitious, furry animals called Tribbles that were brought onboard the starship Enterprise. Details of this example can be found in Pryor [2003], and an online version is available at http://acsweb.fmarion.edu/ Pryor/tribbles.htm).

Figure 1. The Evolutionary Fitness Challenge.

In the late 1800s, the catch-phrase of Darwinism, "Survival
of the fittest," was as popular as Paris Hilton's "That's hot!"
and The Donald's "You're fired!" have been in recent years.
The term "fittest," however, has a very different meaning
to an evolutionary biologist than it does to the layperson.
Evolutionary fitness is the reproductive success of an
individual. It can be measured as the number of offspring
produced in an individual's lifetime.

Let's submit some physically-fit action heroes to an
Evolutionary Fitness Challenge. In Table 1, evolutionary fitness
(number of children sired) is compared among various
hunky heroes in Hollywood. Keep in mind that, as a relative
measure of fitness, the average American woman has two
children during her lifetime (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

How Appropriate Is a Pop Culture Approach?

Skeptics of this approach may be critical of the pop culture theme. Many believe that television rots the mind and is a poor substitute for the traditional presentation of biology in their courses. I counter by relating several cases in which non-majors students in my classes changed their major to biology because they became fascinated with the application of biology to their everyday lives. I also point out that some aspects of today's pop culture may become tomorrow's masterpieces, just as many literary, music, and film classics were pop culture phenomena in years past.

Further supporting this approach, a marked contrast exists between the average American's knowledge of pop culture and more academic topics. …