When this question is posed in a science class, you can immediately see postures improve as students sit up a bit straighter, disengage from their iPods (or whatever electronic device had their attention), and gaze attentively as they await the answer. This is where the magic of case studies in science begins. Instead of providing an easy answer to the question, the teacher acts as facilitator and encourages students to collaborate on what they want to know about the case and need to know in order to answer the question themselves.
Students are allowed to take responsibility for their learning and exercise such skills as questioning, brainstorming, evaluating ideas, researching, and eliminating misconceptions. They can also be asked to take their inquiries further into the social and environmental issues surrounding the case. For example, in the study of population dynamics, students are asked to review data and recorded historical and modern evidence to determine the effect of first, the extermination and then, the reintroduction of grey wolves on the elk populations of Yellowstone National Park. Discussions can be extended to include the social, environmental, and economic issues related to the management of wild populations.
Case studies are routinely used at the post-secondary level in medicine, law, and business to improve critical thinking and processing skills. Bringing such studies into high school science courses makes the learning of concepts in relation to real-world issues and situations engaging and relevant. The University of Buffalo has created a library of case studies (National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science) that are readily available. These items include an overview of the case, teaching notes, and the detailed case studies themselves. Want to know why the people of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky are blue? Start here.