THE type of undergraduate teaching I most enjoyed was introductory lectures to large classes. “The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!” And you would have had to carry me out in a coffin rather than get me to agree to use a computer to deliver what I regard as the antithesis of the lecture — that abomination known as a PowerPoint presentation. So it may seem paradoxical that I am also an enthusiast for using software (at least my own) in teaching. My philosophy on the matter is straightforward: in introductory lectures I select the relevant material from the enormous volume in the text books, emphasize the most important ideas, explain the most difficult concepts, and express my enthusiasm for the science that I find beautiful. The student is relatively passive — he has to be: 200 people cannot be active in a 50 minute period. It is after the lecture that the student should become active, consulting books, participating in small-group discussions, or working in the laboratory. And it is here that self-teaching software can also play a part, although the main role of the type of software I have written is to help the student reinforce essential but unattractive material he has typically learned elsewhere.

Metabolism Suite

‘The Glasgow Metabolism Suite’ was a software application to help students revise (review) aspects of metabolic pathways and the integration of the pathways in different tissues under various physiological conditions. Its essence was interaction with the pathways in their entirety, tracing the flux of metabolites or answering questions about the individual steps. Their psychology is not to subject the user to pressure, to allow him to learn by trial and error, and to avoid inappropriate and synthetic judgement on completion. The original version was written in ‘SuperCard’ for the now defunct classic Mac OS, the replacement for which was a (cross-platform) web-based Java applet. Unfortunately the applet plugin technology has been abandoned by modern web browsers, so the software is currently waiting a third resurrection, perhaps for the mobile phone.

Numeracy webware

Innumeracy is endemic among biological science students in Great Britain, and this became particularly evident to me in relation to the simple calculations needed in a junior laboratory class that I was assigned to run late in my career. I felt that it might help to provide web-based software to give students practice in various types of calculation, together with model answers — where required — and with instruction and hints available. Fortunately I eschewed the heavyweight Java approach in this case, and implemented what were primarily arithmetical calculations in JavaScript web pages. This software has been extended to serve two second-year undergraduate modules — Fundamental Topics in Biology, and Genes, Molecules and Cells. In addition, the approach has been implemented for a more advanced course in Exercise Science. These are all freely accessible on the Internet and now adapt to use on mobile devices. For reasons I cannot imagine, calculations on enzyme units are wildly popular internationally — I should sell the T-shirt.