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May 27, 2001 - Singing Medical School Professor - 2002-01-31

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- teaching through singing! It's how Dr. Helen Davies [pronounced Davis], a medical school professor at the University of Pennsylvania, inspires her students to memorize the numbing facts of microbiology. And it might even work for teaching English.


"I get a lot of teaching awards and I try to explain it in the following way: It's not that I'm this great teacher, it's that other people just don't make that much effort. I look at my students and I think, 'Oh my god, their eyes are glazing over. I wish I could wake them up.' I loved singing to people so I thought, 'well, why don't I just try putting some of this to music,' and I did, and the first thing I did was to develop a song for streptococci. Everybody knows what a sore throat is, which in medical language is pharyngitis, but it's a strep sore throat. And we know that strep can cause a middle ear infection, a throat infection. And in medical lingo i-t-i-s -- an 'itis' -- means an inflammation, a swelling.

So all the words that are used are 'otitis' (that's the ear) 'pharyngitis' (that's the throat), 'cellulitis' (that's an inflammation of cells). Recently we've had something called 'flesh-eating bacteria,' which are the strep, and the flesh-eating bacteria cause something called 'necrotizing fasciitis.' And the strep themselves can end up, if they are not properly treated, as rheumatic fever in kids and an inflammation of the kidney -- 'glomerular nephritis.' Now look how long it's taken me to tell you this."

RS: "And we're glazed over."

AA: "No, it's fascinating actually. I remember the flesh-eating bacteria scare a few years back."

DAVIES: "Well, it's still here with us. People still die of it. But if you put it together, look how easy this is: (singing to the tune of "She'll be Coming Round the Mountain") Streptococci cause otitis, pharyngitis, cellulitis and necrotizing fasciitis, but the delayed sequelae [see-QUELL-ee, consequences] should make doc a nervous Nellie: rheumatic fever and glomerular nephritis. It all comes together in just five little lines."

RS: "How do you introduce this to your class, do you first put them on the books and then say, 'OK, now we're really going to learn it'?"

DAVIES: "First I give them a lecture and I say 'and now I will summarize for you. And I say, "Please don't be frightened, I know nobody has ever sung to you in a science course, but I'm going to do that." And so I put the words onto a slide and they look at it, look at me with disbelief, and I say, "Now you're going to join me, because if you join me you can have the words to it.'"

RS: "So what's the reaction of the students?"

DAVIES: "At first they're a little shy and then they start making songs for me."

RS: "So tell me do you see them humming these songs in the halls?"

DAVIES: "I know they hum it when they go for their exams."

AA: "Is there a singing portion of their exams?"

DAVIES: "Not really, but they remember."

RS: "The techniques you're using are good teaching techniques not only for medicine, but they could be used to help learn English as a foreign language."

DAVIES: "I agree with you completely. All of these are wonderful teaching techniques because you can engage the right side of the brain as well as the left side and you can remember so much more from having it with music. Just think of the number of students who can't remember anything in class but who can do rap songs by the hour." AA: "I understand that there's one disease that you don't sing about."

DAVIES: "Yes, I don't sing about AIDS, H-I-V/AIDS, and that is because I find it so tragic at this point because we still don't know how to deal with it. We have got some drugs, but we need preventive care, and I think that is coming with our newer vaccines. And when we have a vaccine against it, I'll write a song."

AA: Professor Helen Davis at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who tells people she's "twenty-four Celsius" ... that's seventy-six in Fahrenheit years. And that's Wordmaster for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Dry Bones"/Fats Waller and His Rhythm