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Dr. A. Wade Boykin

Dr. Richard Millis
September 2006

Dr. Richard Millis has achieved many “firsts.” An Associate Professor of physiology and biophysics, Dr. Millis authored a Surgeon General’s report on nicotine that led to the creation of the first federal smoke-free workplace. As chief scientist, he developed the first centralized federal database on medical aspects of biological and chemical warfare agents. Working with the Ethiopian Armed Forces, he helped launch the first physician assistant training program in sub-Saharan Africa. However, it is his classroom teaching that has propelled him to the front-runner position for CETLA’s 2006 Teaching with Technology Award.

Dr. Millis won the award because of the way he has harnessed technology to address a significant pedagogical problem. Many years ago, he observed that the teaching of physiology relied upon reading, lecturing, note-taking, and memorizing. Yet research suggests that these passive teaching strategies do not stimulate the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are needed to solve real-life problems such as diagnosing illnesses or choosing a treatment. These are the skills that are required to pass the newly developed clinical skills test that is part of the U.S. Medical Licensure Examination. Therefore, Dr. Millis set out to integrate the teaching of medical problem-solving skills throughout all four years of Howard’s medical curriculum. 

So far, Dr. Millis has integrated such teaching in his courses for first- and second-year students. As a result, attendance has increased from 70% to 90%. Although no statistically significant differences were found for specific test items, the average score on tests has increased significantly, catapulting significantly more students above the 86th percentile. Also, the professor who teaches the clinical skills component for third-year students has noticed that Millis’s second-year students have arrived better prepared for his curriculum since Millis implemented computer technology.

Dr. Millis uses computer technology to introduce a real-life clinical problem via a video and then to challenge students to solve the problem by applying computer simulations of physiological processes. These computer simulations come from a computerized textbook developed by SymBioSys Labs. Thus, instead of lecturing about facts and concepts, Dr. Millis has become a facilitator, advising students and providing resources such as lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations, and textbook readings. With $1,000 a year for 10 years from Howard’s Fund for Academic Excellence, he has enabled students to engage in “virtual” laboratory exercises in membrane transport, skeletal muscle contraction, neural signaling, endocrine control, cardiovascular dynamics, respiratory mechanism, renal control of water, digestion, hematology, and clinical diagnosis of AIDs—to name a few. The simulations accommodate visual and kinesthetic learning styles more easily than traditional lecturing. Moreover, to perform similar “hands-on, wet-lab” exercises without technology would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Over the years, Dr. Millis has sought to improve learning beyond Howard as well. In addition to training physician assistants in Ethiopia, he trained physicians and allied health personnel to provide chemical casualty care during the first Persian Gulf War. He coordinated the training for a minority neuroscience fellowship program sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. He also taught faculty and students how to use computers for scientific problem-solving at the National University of Rwanda in the wake of the genocide.

No wonder Dr. Millis has earned a place in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and CETLA's award for outstanding teaching.

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