UNCG Campus Weekly

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See it, picture it, learn it. Biology’s Bruce Kirchoff brings innovation to the classroom.

012313Spotlight_KirchoffDr. Bruce Kirchoff sees tremendous value in visual learning, and he helps his students harness its power to learn biology.

Here is an example: In his plant diversity class, students must master the intricate life cycles of the algae, fungi and land plants. Instead of having his students memorize the details of these cycles, he has created standardized ways of representing them visually, and software to teach these representations. “Don’t memorize – picture the life cycle,” he tells his students. The picture is a schema that summarizes a large amount of information.

Trying to memorize the individual parts of the cycle can drive students nuts, he says. Where does the gametophyte go? The archegonium? What about the carposporophyte? And this is just the beginning. Visual learning provides a better way.

In some ways his software is like using flashcards to help memorize and learn – but it’s much more effective.

“I am teaching my students to think visually,” he says: to build up and see patterns in their minds eye. When they can “see” the pattern, they can work back to the facts. The pattern is a visual summary of the facts.

With research centering on plant structure and development, and on visual learning, Kirchoff has been a member of UNCG’s biology faculty since 1986.

His work with visual learning has led him to become an entrepreneur. The UNCG Office of Innovation and Commercialization advised him on starting a company around his proprietary software. The UNCG Teaching and Learning Center (now the FTLC) funded some of its initial development. As a result, the software technology is offered free to any course at UNCG. Any faculty member who’d like more information may contact him at kirchoff@uncg.edu, and more information is available at http://www.metisllc.com/.

In another class he has created a version of the software that teaches plant recognition. “You learn to identify plants using the same part of your brain that you use when you look at faces,” Kirchoff says. Students can see and learn the plants at home, on their own time. They come to class prepared to learn at an advanced level, and they do better on their exams.

The software can be used in any class – wherever visual learning is appropriate.

Classes at the Wagga Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University in Australia use the software. Medical residents in neuralpathology at Stanford Medical School use it. Dr. Catherine Matthews (Education) and Ann Somers (Biology) are developing a version as part of their NSF-funded HERP project. Leaders of a Science Olympiad team in Honolulu are using it. UNCG chemistry professor Dr. Mitchell Croat is developing a version for organic chemistry, and using it in his classes.

These techniques also have use outside the sciences. Kirchoff asks, is a work of art – even an abstract piece – to be seen as a whole, or as composed of parts? “The answer is …. both.” The parts interact to create the whole, but they are only parts – they only have their form and place in the work – because they are “of the whole.” This is the part-whole relationship in art. The same relationship occurs in organisms.

The great German poet and scientist, Goethe, saw this clearly, and it influenced all of his work. He coined the term “morphology,” which is the study of the structure of living things, and Kirchoff’s field of study. Goethe basically said that organisms are like works of art. There is an integral wholeness to the organism. They are composed of parts, but they are not just the parts.

Is what he teaches like the visual expertise described in the book “Blink”? Yes, the first chapter of that popular book dovetails with what he is hoping to achieve. The idea is to be able to be both quick and accurate, with one look. Visual experts do this, and he is teaching his students to do it too. “Using the software, we can get the instant recognition effect with only a short amount of training.”

Dr. Kirchoff will speak with Lisa Woods of Weaver Academy on visual learning in the upcoming Think Tank Thursday at the Weatherspoon Jan.31, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m., Weatherspoon Auditorium. Contact Ann Grimaldi (afgrimal@uncg.edu) for more information.