Success for science students

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 2nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Anatomy and Physiology. It’s a make-or-break subject for students who want to work in health care.

WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson introduces us to an instructor who’s working hard to get science students ready for their careers.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: When Anita Cliburn signed up for organic chemistry in college, it wasn’t for the fun of it. She had her sights set on medical school.

But the anticipated acceptance letter never arrived. Instead, Cliburn’s career plans moved in a new direction.   

That’s Room 207 in Smith Hall. It’s a plain brick building at the community college where Cliburn has taught anatomy and physiology for 13 years. She faces a daunting task each semester—preparing students for careers in the ever-expanding medical field. It’s a job that brought her original ambitions full circle.

CLIBURN: We have some students going to medical school, some going to OT or PT. Co-Lin has a radiology program and an MLT program… Most of my students want to be nurses…

As a rookie teacher, the tall brunette was in her A&P textbook so much she wore its lime green cover off. That kind of drive brought Cliburn a following, but some co-eds call her a dream-breaker.

CLIBURN: One of the things I always tell my students is that if you’re going on to a career in science, I’m not the most difficult class you’ll ever take. I’m a step on your ladder…

That’s why Cliburn is wearing scrubs, and she’s all business.

She sidles up next to a pair of lab partners looking through a microscope. Clearly, they’re in the hot seat.

CLIBURN: Final answer? STUDENT 1: Simple squamous? STUDENT 2: Simple squamous, I guess. STUDENT 1: Wait, wait. Is it squamous or squawmous? CLIBURN: I say squamous. Some people say squawmous. Okay. Does that look flat like a pancake to you? STUDENT 2: Actually, no.

Later, when Cliburn hands out a pop quiz, one teaching challenge becomes obvious—today’s technology.

CLASSROOM: If you have on an apple watch, pull it off your arm and put it in your backpack. Take any electronics off your body…

CLIBURN: Students are more distracted now than when I first started teaching… if you start to walk near a group of students and all the laptops start closing, you know we weren’t focusing on lecture material for the day.  

Each semester, Cliburn makes a point to teach how the different regions of the brain impact learning. That’s why phone photos of her whiteboard notes are a no-go. She wants students to engage the handwriting region of their brains.

But students aren’t alone in being distracted by technology. Cliburn, who’s 57, says teachers feel the push to stay connected, too.

CLIBURN: When I first started working here, I had the time to sit in my office and really study my material, to do personal development. To really hone my skills… I don’t have time for that anymore.

The reason: Canvas, an online learning management system used by colleges across the country. But the access comes at a cost.

CLIBURN: We have a long list of to-do’s of things that have to be done and posted and put on a computer. It takes up an enormous amount of time.

CLASS: Have a good day, folks. Make sure everything’s cleaned up and put away before you leave me… Thank you, Ms. Cliburn… 

After lab, Cliburn heads to her tidy desk in a windowless office in the basement of Smith Hall to do her computer work. She compensates for dwindling on-the-clock  time for personal development by working more hours. Still, her door is open to students like Kaylee Silvan, who wants to become a nurse.  

SILVAN: She puts so much of herself into her class and into her students that you can’t help but walk away with a little piece of her, I guess… Something that she’s told me in these classes will come back. I’ll be cooking, and I’ll think, ‘Did I wash this properly?’” 

Christian students also appreciate that Cliburn is open about her faith. In a domain where evolution is primary, she hasn’t been pulled into the undertow.

CLIBURN: So, baby will mix oxygenated and deoxygenated blood…

In lectures like this one, she calls a baby a baby, not a fetus. Not an embryo. So far, she’s faced no pushback.

Community colleges like Copiah-Lincoln have a hard task recruiting new employees. Instructors may get a $500 cost of living increase each year, but there’s been only one real raise since Cliburn started there in 2006.   

CLIBURN: I know for a fact that we’ve wanted to hire a couple of really good high school teachers that had experience and were exceptional in their field, and they weren’t willing to take the pay cut they would have had to take to come here.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of the top 30 fastest-growing occupations are in the medical field.

That means colleges are going to need a lot more professors like Anita Cliburn to teach courses like Anatomy and Physiology. If not, the workforce won’t have enough home health aides, genetic counselors, phlebotomists, occupational therapists, or nurse practitioners.  

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Wesson, Mississippi.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

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