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Confused about how the gene-editing tool CRISPR works? Try drawing it.

A cartoon by a student in professor Roger Giese’s biochemistry class, where students use drawings to convey advanced pharmacy topics. Courtesy of Roger Giese.

It all started with a doodle. 

Roger Geise, a professor of chemistry and biomedical science at Northeastern, had asked his students to write him a note on the back of their quizzes during lectures, as an easy way to communicate with students.

“I said, ‘Anything! Just talk to me,’” Giese recalls.

To his surprise, a few students turned in drawings. Then, he had an idea. The doodles inspired him to encourage his students’ creativity as a way to better understand advanced coursework: He asked them to explain the concepts through cartoons.

Roger Giese is a professor of chemistry and biomedical science, and director of the Environmental Cancer Research Program. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Giese says that having students draw cartoons for a homework assignment instead of writing a traditional response is a more memorable way to master complex concepts. He was immediately impressed with the effort students put into their drawings.

“I like to do things that the students will remember,” he says.

Giese will assign a reading to the students, and then assign them each to create a cartoon that’s related to the overall theme of the article they read. 

Students are graded on how well they understand and communicate the concept, not on their artistic ability. They can redo the cartoons until they come up to full credit. When the first assignments came in, Giese was impressed with the energy his students put into the activity. 

“I glanced over at the table where they were putting down their homework and thought, ‘Oh goodness, the quality and the effort they’re giving it’” he says. “I was just absolutely overwhelmed.”

The cartoons vary in style, but are always filled with creativity. One cartoon from a past semester has a colorful picture that compares exosomes to Santa Claus, because, like the Christmas character, the cellular mailmen carry many different things to different places. (Unlike Santa, who delivers gifts to children, exosomes deliver proteins and genetic information between cells.) 

Another cartoon from an earlier class illustrates a scene of a box too large for a delivery truck, showing how CRISPR gene-editing tools can be difficult to use because the key molecules are too big for the body to transport. 

Some drawings were so impressive that Giese printed them in a larger size to hang on a bulletin board near his office so more people could see them. 

Most of Giese’s biochemistry students are studying pharmacy, and in an already busy course he wanted a way to bring in some pharmacy topics with this assignment. Giese says the strategy was to bring in current pharmacy concepts that were “over the students’ heads to some degree,” that could keep them up to date with the industry. It also helps give students a general understanding of biochemistry that they can draw on later in their careers.

He has received positive feedback from students, who seem to enjoy the opportunity to study in a more creative way. 

“They like doing it,” Giese says. “It’s really the relevance [of the material] and the chance to do something a little bit different.”

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