Biology courses are hard for many students. To make the subject easier to master, Dr. Bruce Kirchoff presents an innovative approach to teaching the material.

“I am teaching my students to think visually,” he says.

His method encourages them to see patterns in their mind’s eye, through active learning.

An example? In his plant diversity class, students must master the intricate life cycles of 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 means of encompassing a large amount of information. Visual learning provides a better way.

“What we do with the software is show students variation through multiple images so they can get the concept of the species or idea that we are trying to teach,” says Kirchoff. “It’s not memorization; it’s really conceptual learning.”

“It looks very simple,” he adds. “But it’s very effective.”

And once they’ve mastered the information, they retain it better and can apply their knowledge in higher-level courses and go on to have an impact with their careers.

His work with visual learning has led him to become an entrepreneur. With advice from the UNCG Office of Innovation and Commercialization, he created the business Metis LLC to expand the reach of these valuable learning aids. From a prototype created for Stanford Medical School to classes at Australia’s Charles Sturt University, students in various parts of the world have used the software.

The UNC Board of Governors presented Kirchoff with its Teaching Excellence Award this year. His innovative teaching also was recognized with the 2014 Charles Edwin Bessey Teaching Award from the Botanical Society of America, and a 2013 Innovations in Plant Systematics Education Prize from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. In February, Metis was one of 40 worldwide semifinalists in the Elance Big Idea Start-Up competition.

The best recognition comes from his students. One plant diversity undergraduate said, “His IQ software was very helpful. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a teacher who was so committed to me learning.” Another said, “I like the active learning life cycle and structure assignments that are given once or twice a week. They really aid in learning the material for the exam.”

Kirchoff loves to teach – and to see students actively engaged in learning. “Sometimes it’s the students who are the poorest in the class that really inspire me, because I see them struggling with things and I try to figure out what I need to do to really get them working – to really get them going on these kinds of subjects. I do get the students excited about it by using a number of different techniques.

“That’s what makes me excited.”

Story by Mike Harris, University Relations
Photography by David Wilson, University Relations