To anyone wandering through the basement of Devlin Hall, Bio 100 sounds like a party in full swing. Bonnie Raitt's husky voice rings out over a sound system. About 300 students excitedly rustle into the classroom and shrug off their parkas before settling into the steeply banked auditorium seats.
At the front of the amphitheater, Eric Strauss, the 35-year-old research assistant professor with the cordless mic clipped to his shirt, arranges slides on a tabletop, confers with a passing student and adjusts the dials on the stereo. Is this any way to run a science class?
Over the past four years Strauss has more than quadrupled enrollment in Biology 100, the introductory class for non-science majors. When Strauss arrived at BC in 1991, about 180 students were taking the course each year, all in a single section. Now the department offers three sections totaling about 800 students, 600 of whom Strauss teaches.
Assoc. Prof. William Petri, the department chairman, says the explanation for the surge in enrollment is simple: Eric Strauss. "He's a gifted teacher who's able to make full use of multimedia resources that are beautifully integrated into his lectures," Petri says.
Strauss combines an emphatic command of his subject matter with the flair of the radio disk jockey he was as a college student. At a time when enrollment in science classes is on the wane nationally, he wants to make biology irresistible and he uses every sexy tool he can lay his hands on: computer imagery, laser discs, slides, film and video. These are mixed with quick, unexpected darts of humor.
A recent class began with a discussion of cell division. "Let me tell you, when you study cell division in high school, you need a pillow and a blanket, because it gets wicked dull real fast," says Strauss. "The beauty of what is taking place is entirely lost. Oops," he continues as he steps back from the lectern and collides with a piece of furniture, "I'm being attacked by a table."
He quickly segues from self-depreciation into a crisp, no-nonsense delivery, posing three questions to his class: What is genetic investment? How does genetic investment shape behavior in male and female animals? And how does gender modify the reproductive strategies of males and females?
Always in control, Strauss is the genial taskmaster who is exquisitely attuned to the moment a bit of comic relief might perk up the ears of his audience or sharpen a student's grasp of cloudy material.
"There's a performance aspect to my teaching," Strauss concedes after class. "But I take biology very seriously. I try to pace the class so that students get a bolus of information, then a story; then maybe some heavy conceptual stuff, followed by another story."
In the middle of a discussion of cell life, Strauss makes an apparent detour to discuss catalog mail-order shopping.
"You order boots from L.L. Bean and when they arrive, what's the first thing you see? Not the boots, but the box. Boxing and shipping are arguably more important than the product. And that's the role of the Golgi complex - packaging and handling hazardous waste within the cell." Even a student half-dozing in the back row would have trouble forgetting that analogy.
Strauss aims to knock down the walls between professor and student, and between students and the larger world - efforts which continue after hours. Every weekend last fall, a half-dozen or so students accepted his invitation to join him at a field research station on Cape Cod, where he has conducted research on animal behavior and environmental-impact issues for the past two decades.
The research and a classroom talk about reproductive strategy merged eerily in a class in which he excitedly screened a five-minute video of two male white-tailed deer butting heads over access to females - a precise, timely example of genetic investment shaping behavior, as discussed the previous week. Shot the previous weekend on the Barnstable dunes by two students, the footage is grainy with dawn light but powerful. Antlers can be heard clicking over the hushed breath of the students.
"I've been sitting in blinds for 17 years and have never seen anything like this," Strauss says with amazement.
He claims luring large numbers of students into an introductory bio course and keeping their interest keen is especially gratifying at a time when science teaching is in crisis.
"Science is about being in the world, but when we go to teach we often strip away all that is beautiful about the act of discovery and just give the facts. You need to have something to grab students as soon as they walk through the door," says Strauss. "I can't bring a live tiger into the room, but . . ."
No question about it, he would if he could.
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