Surprising best gift to my undergraduate students

DSC00978This is the time of year when I start to wonder if I’ve done a good enough job with my large undergraduate class. Have I really shaped a great learning experience for the 46 students in Biology 472, Behavioral Ecology? Might they have learned more with detailed lectures instead of all our activities?

I’m sure they learned something what with the weekly quizzes, the two texts, Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and Davies, Krebs, and West’s Introduction to behavioral ecology, not to mention Mockingbird Tales: readings in animal behavior, available free at

They learned from the detailed writing for Wikipedia on two wasp species, with several iterations of corrections and responses to comments, not to mention making comments. A couple of weeks ago they taught high school students with some very thoughtful activities and powerpoints.

When I ask them to write fun facts on their wasps on the white papers hung around the room, they do so enthusiastically, then vote on the best ones.

But none of this captures what I think is the biggest gift I’ve given them. It is time to get to know each other, time to work together, to learn together. Some of them have had four classes together and yet never properly got to know each other. I love to see them bonding, to see them helping each other with their work.

Of course these students are likely to have plenty of friends from other circumstances. But there is something really special about friends that share your academic interests. It is something that at Michigan I had to go to the Biological Station in Pellston to get. It is something really small colleges have easily. I hope some of these friendships enrich their lives and their understanding of biology. I’m glad it happened on my watch.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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