The subjects that I teach—biology and botany—line up with my own personal interests. I love to walk in the woods and identify plants. I’m always asking questions like, What kinds of trees live here? Why? What types of flowers will I find? How many newts am I going to see? Just being in nature renews me—the fact is, I’m a nerd, and now everybody’s going to know it.
I had a lot of great experiences teaching botany last year. One day we went into the woods to study trees and their uses, and we found a recently fallen pine tree. The kids decided to finish the job with their hands. They severed the last of the attached roots, then carried the tree to the science building lawn. I’ll never forget the sight of 11 boys walking under a giant log. They ended up cutting the tree up and making it into a bench.
I also started a project with my botany students to find out when various trees and shrubs bloom on campus. The goal is to get a longitudinal set of data, taken over a number of years. For example, when do maples bloom—is it a two-day range or a week? What factors cause them to bloom when they do? To gather information, students check the buds on plants on the same day every week. There were a few athletes in the class last year who weren’t very interested at first. Then, when they saw changes in the buds, they got more into it. When the buds bloomed, the guys were saying, “Yes! I win! My tree bloomed first!” They liked turning it into a personal competition. I liked the data.
One of my pet projects is visiting vernal pools with my Introductory Biology class. The kids are always blown away. We go into the middle of the woods, and there’s a body of the water, which the kids think is just a bunch of muck. Then they take one step into it and find all kinds of eggs. They’re like, “Eggs—of what?” They didn’t see the eggs laid, don’t know what they’re going to become, and yet there are thousands of them. The students’ imaginations go crazy. We examine the eggs, take photos and draw pictures, and figure out what kind of eggs they are. One of the best moments is seeing the salamanders lay eggs. We have to go when the time is right: the first rainy night in April when it’s over 40 degrees. It’s a magical experience.