A guide on the side

Medical professor enlists his students as active partners in quest for knowledge

You won’t find Thomas Nathaniel’s clinical neuroscience students passively watching PowerPoint lecture slides or their professor droning at a lectern. 

That’s because Nathaniel, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine-Greenville, takes a different approach to teaching and learning. 

“I believe that my students are adult learners. Most of them have gone through a lot in their lives, and some of them come from difficult backgrounds,” says Nathaniel, a founding faculty member of the school, which welcomed its first students in 2012. “My job is to help them navigate medical school by allowing them to play major roles in the learning process.” 

Nathaniel, director of the school’s clinical neuroscience module, often puts the students in small groups where they become major players in the learning process. He gives them the details on actual clinical cases involving neurodegenerative diseases and asks them to look for clinical solutions. 

“They learn together, and they learn from each other,” he says. “I am just a facilitator of their learning process.” 

Nathaniel is keenly interested in providing his students with a foundational understanding of various neurological diseases such as dementia, stroke and Alzheimer’s that his students might encounter in residency and beyond 

We want our students to understand where the problem is in the brain for each particular disease or condition. If you know where the problem is, then you have an idea where the medication can target it,” he says.  

Nathaniel has taken his student-led learning approach beyond the School of Medicine, introducing middle school students in the Greenville area to the same concept. The goal there is educate middle schoolers on the prevention and treatment of stroke. 

“Every one of those sixth- and seventh-graders has a grandparent or a mom or dad, and it’s paramount that they know what to do if something happens,” he says. “They need to learn to recognize the signs of stroke and call 911 if there’s a problem.” 

Instead of seeking out science classes in the middle schools where he’s conducting the outreach, Nathaniel goes to the fine arts classes and, after brief instruction, encourages the students to develop stroke education programs. 

“Some of them do a video. One did a project on not sitting down so much, even demonstrating a non-sedentary way of playing video games,” he says. “The goal is for them to be active learners, to become their own teachers toward the goal of achieving a healthy lifestyle.” 

Nathaniel credits an uncle with sparking his interest in teaching many years ago. After showing him the buildings on his own college campus in Nigeria, the uncle informed him that the acquisition of learning never stops.  

“Knowledge is something you acquire; it’s a lifelong process,” Nathaniel says. “I feel I might be more effective if I pass along whatever knowledge I have and let them use it to solve their own problems. Education is the best teacher and the best medication.” 

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