Teaching

 

 

Biostatistics  |  Herpetology

 

Teaching interests
   My teaching interests are in ecology, biostatistics, and vertebrate zoology.  I currently teach courses in Biostatistics (Biol. 254) and Herpetology (Biol. 416); I also participate in departmental Seminar (Biol. 440).   In the past, I have taught courses in Ecology, Ecology Lab, Vertebrate Natural History, Vertebrate Morphology, Animal Physiology, Developmental Biology, Mammalogy, Ornithology, Embryology, Mammalian Dissection, Environmental Science, and Christian View of Science and Scripture.

Teaching recognition
   
Harding University recognized me with Distinguished Teacher Awards in 1994 and 2001. 

Teaching philosophy
   
When I was in college trying to find my niche in life, I was resolute that one thing I would never choose to do was teach.  Today, after over 37 years of teaching, I obviously either did not have a choice or else I  changed my mind!  Perhaps in denial, I still do not regard myself primarily as a teacher, but I do regard myself as a biologist who teaches, and I think there is a subtle, but important, distinction between the two viewpoints.  I do not identify at all with some of my education colleagues who say it doesn't matter what they teach.  The thought of speaking in front of a group sometimes still makes me quite ill (not surprising, given my highly introverted personality), so there must be something else that drives me.  What is it that motivates me to do something for a living that I said I would never do?  The answer is really pretty simple.  Although I am not particularly motivated by a love of teaching, I am highly motivated by a love of nature, and I quickly learned in graduate school that it was in academia where a biologist had the greatest freedom to practice biology however he desired (in comparison to governmental and industrial positions).  So fundamentally, I teach because it's a great way to practice biology.  I am indeed a lucky man to be paid to do something that I have been doing since my early childhood (albeit at a different level of sophistication) - and that is sharing my childlike fascination with biology with others.  The distinguished biologist Whit Gibbons once stated, "Wonder at the natural world should be an underpinning of any biologist.  Discovering how the natural world works and explaining it to others are the ultimate validation of one's professional merit."   Whit - I could not agree more!
    Another significant influence on my career decision occurred in my late twenties several years after I had committed my life to Christ.  As a biologist and a Christian, I  felt compelled to share God's Creation (in the broadest sense) with others.  King Solomon once stated, "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter - to search out a matter is the glory of kings" (Proverbs 25:2).   That statement, which I believe is a statement of fact, made a deep and lasting impression on me.  What a tremendous opportunity and privilege it is for a Christian biologist to "search out" what his Creator actually did, and still does, to make the Creation (=nature) work!  One might be wise to consider that ignoring or belittling His Creation, whether in stewardship or, for some of us, in serious study, may be akin to blasphemy.  The eminent Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, recently stated, "Each species, to put the matter succinctly, is a masterpiece.  It deserves that rank in the fullest sense: a creation assembled with extreme care by genius."  I do not know whether Wilson's "creation by genius" referred to God's work, nevertheless, to a Christian biologist the statement is highly thought-provoking and certainly is one that drives me in my work.
    Admittedly, my level of enthusiasm is often not shared by my students, and I sometimes think they feel that my expectations are too high, but I realistically don't think that they are.  The lack of expectation or exposure to a serious learning atmosphere at home, school, or in American society in general results in many of today's college students being less than committed to real education in any area.   One of the great tragedies of the high school experience is the social pressure to not let yourself get excited about learning - definitely not cool!  Unfortunately, many students bring this infectious baggage with them to college, and it is an attitude which intellectually debilitates many students, even some of our most talented.
    As an experienced biologist and teacher, I know that understanding biology requires an appreciation and understanding of the dynamic process of science as it relates to biology.  It is unfortunate that many undergraduates resist the effort that is required to understand the process of scientific problem-solving in lieu of simply learning techniques or memorizing static biological "facts" (which result from the process and which constantly change because of the process).   Students need to understand that possessing high-tech skills and a storehouse of facts is valuable, but having these and lacking an ability to ask and answer questions about nature makes you simply a technician - not a scientist.
    Often related to this superficial factual/technique orientation so prevalent in undergraduates is the worshipful attitude toward the almighty grade point, often seen in competitive, high-ability students.  I sometimes tell such extreme grade-centered students, "Do not let classes interfere with your education!"  Grades are surely important, but when grades are viewed as an end to themselves and more important than education, it is basic understanding that usually suffers.  When I reflect on my best and most successful students over the years, rarely have they had the highest grade points, and never did they have an attitude of "grades rule," but they all had, to varying degrees, these important characteristics: problem-solving ability, perseverance, high work ethic, the ability to get along with others, and, perhaps most importantly, an interest level that led them to actively pursue biology outside-of-class.
    Now that you've heard some of my personal views regarding teaching and learning, you might ask yourself these questions:  Do I like nature?   Do I think about biology?  Do I read serious biological material that is not a class assignment?  If your answer to these questions is "yes", then you probably will enjoy and benefit from my classes more than many. 

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"...the primary goal of schools is to impart enough facts to make children stop asking
questions.  Some, with whom the schools do not succeed, become scientists."  

                                                                      -Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

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