CORVALLIS, Ore. – It’s a Tuesday morning and Kevin Ahern is entertaining a room full of college students in an introductory class to biochemistry and biophysics with a voice that carries and a lesson that is positively lyrical.
The class is full of young students who have many reasons to be nervous; their course work is among the most difficult at the university. But Ahern, a senior instructor of biophysics and biochemistry at Oregon State University, has found a way to calm jittery nerves.
After brief announcements and roll call – during which Ahern proves that he knows his class of about 50 students by name and face – he projects song lyrics on an overhead screen that contain words like “ribosome” and “DNA.”
Then, without hesitation, he begins to sing the scientific lyrics to the melody of “America, the Beautiful” – and the class follows his lead.
This is Metabolic Melodies, one of Ahern’s unconventional teaching methods to cut through the anxiety that new students often feel when first entering his class.
Ahern, who jokingly claims the title of “frustrated musician,” began writing the melodies in 1990.
“I originally conceived of the melodies because biochemistry itself is a pretty scary subject for students,” he said.
Metabolic Melodies have made a big enough impression on the student population that Ahern often has students enrolling in his courses because of the songs.
But while they are entertaining and make the professor less intimidating, the melodies, like his other unusual teaching methods, serve a practical purpose as well.
“Some have a purpose in teaching students to remember something,” he said. “I know students who use the songs in remembering metabolic pathways.”
Thanks to a drive to make class material accessible and a grant called the LL Stewart Award from OSU, Ahern and his wife, Indira Rajagopal, recently developed a textbook for the iPad called “Biochemistry free and easy” that is free for students. There also is a PDF version of the book available for students who don’t own iPads.