sealPurdue News

December 1997

This 'doctor' makes house calls

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A freshman biology course at Purdue University brings 700 students to Dennis Minchella's lectures twice each week. But for the past three years, he also has been bringing the course to his students.

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The associate professor of biology holds study sessions in residence hall lounges and student union dining rooms to answer questions and offer explanations of material being covered in his large lecture sessions, which are by necessity far less personal that he would wish.

Minchella calls it Mobile Operation in Biological Science, but his students like to refer to it as "Mo' BS."

"There are lots of advantages to going to the students rather than making them come to me," Minchella explains. "They are much more comfortable in their own environment. It also forces them to get a group of friends together, which I encourage anyway for a study group."

Minchella's course is required for all biology majors at Purdue, but it also is taken by students in pre-veterinary science, health science and liberal arts. The material covered is voluminous, but even more challenging for students is the way they are asked to use what they learn.

"The shift from high school to college-level science is a tough transition to make," Minchella says. "Many students have learned to memorize facts, but now they have to understand concepts and apply those concepts to a problem. Some of them really struggle with that."

The Mobile Operation in Biological Science sessions are held for two to three weeks during the most difficult part of the semester whenever at least eight students sign up to attend. Minchella frequently visits three different residence halls in a single evening of tutoring.

"We talk primarily about the material they need to know for class, but we talk about a lot of other things, too," he says. "They ask about the kinds of careers available in biology, or what medical school is like. They're also curious about what kind of research I do and often ask me to suggest courses for them to take next semester. I couldn't get that kind of interaction anywhere else."

Not that he doesn't try. Minchella is known for having almost unlimited office hours for students. "I've answered questions everywhere from the checkout line at the local grocery store to the men's locker room at the recreational gymnasium," he says. "I also make a point to have lunch in the same cafeteria on the same day every week and invite students to join me there to talk about biology or whatever."

In addition to seeing that students do well in his class, Minchella also tries to help them establish good study habits early in their college careers.

"For students who are planning to be biology majors, it's critical that they get off on the right foot," Minchella says. "Otherwise they're going to drop the class, and possibly leave science. Because there's no way to tell which one is going to be the next great scientist, I want to help them all. Not just the superstars, but especially the ones who are close to not making the cut."

He's speaking from experience. Minchella admits to struggling academically during his first semester of undergraduate work, and he shares that with his students.

"I think there is a large fraction of students who aren't especially well-prepared coming in, but they have the capabilities," Minchella explains. "They can do it if they believe in themselves, so if you help them a bit at the beginning with things like self-confidence and perseverance, that gets a large number of the at-risk students over the top."

Source: Dennis Minchella, (765) 494-8188; e-mail,
Writer: Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Associate Professor Dennis Minchella tutors students at Purdue's Shealy Residence Hall. Pictured clockwise from Minchella are freshman Jackie Webster, a pre-veterinary science major from Crown Point, Ind., and freshman Lisa Graves, a neurobiology major from Southport, Ind. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)
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