Science can be a hard subject to understand, especially upper-level higher-ed science courses. A professor in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle is creatively cracking the code to help his students understand tricky topics.

Joe Horzempa is an associate professor of Biology at West Liberty University, and he has what could be described as an unorthodox way of teaching science. 

Horzempa uses his musical talents to help certain topics stick out in his students’ minds.

In the lab, Horzempa and his students study vaccines, which is a pretty demanding task, as Horzempa points out.

“There’s a lot of failure in the laboratory. A lot of experiments that you would call failure, but you learn something from every experiment,” Horzempa said. “There’s a construct, you work years on it, and it either doesn’t produce the protein correctly, you don’t get the antibody response you thought you were going to get.”

Science in Song

But in the classroom, you don’t have years to experiment with students to see what will get a response. While you may see some students again over their time in college, a professor generally only has one shot at getting information across.

That’s why Horzempa turned to an old pastime he and his friends would do to make themselves laugh to help students learn.

“I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to somehow to take my love of music and bring it into the classroom.’ When my friends and I were young, we would always, kind of like Weird Al Yankovic, make song parodies — we’d hear a song, we’d change the words to make each other laugh. So that’s what I do in the classroom,” he said.

Some of Horzempa’s hits include “American Pie-tosis” (cell division in the style of Don McLean’s “American Pie”), a song about bacterial byproducts in the style of “Piano Man”, among others, but he is always wary of the effectiveness of the songs themselves.

Listen to one of Horzempa’s hits: “American Pie-tosis”.

“I don’t know if it helps them learn the material any better, I don’t know, maybe it does, maybe the song gets in their head, but I’ll tell you it does make them come to class more, and it does make them talk about science more,” he said.

But there’s an added benefit that Horzempa may be overlooking, as Junior Chemistry student MacKenzie Jacobs points out.

“Whenever he plays guitar and sings the songs in class, it really inspires me to be more creative about the topic. It really gets my wheels in my mind spinning like ‘oh wow there’s so many cool things you can do with the knowledge that you know’ and there’s so many ways you can help people with this,” Jacobs said.

Professor of the Year

Professor Joe Horzempa works in the lab with student, Umesh Nepali, who takes a tissue culture as part of his study of host-pathogen interactions. Photo: Rebecca Kiger

Horzempa was recognized as the state’s professor of the year in 2017, but he says it’s not awards, but student opportunities that keep him going.

“Whenever a student comes to me and says ‘I made it to medical school, or I got into this grad program, I got a job working for this laboratory’ that’s the stuff that really makes me feel like I’m doing something right,” he said. “The Professor of the Year thing, not to take anything away from it, that was amazing, but that doesn’t change about the fact that I’m here to try to be an influence on these students and try to help them realize their potential.”

Helping students realize their potential seems to be going well for Horzempa, as Jacobs has just earned two grants through NASA for summer research.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.