A Constant in the Changing Field of K-12 Education: The Significance of a Liberal Arts Foundation
Alison Smith '03 receives the St. Olaf Graduate of the Decade Award
Reflections on a Sabbatical in India
Newsletter front page
Welcome to another edition of the Second Messenger. I am writing this during the last week of interim. With so many students and faculty gone on programs abroad, the building is a little bit quieter than during the rest of the academic year. But behind classroom doors the students and faculty involved in courses on campus are hard at work. In this final week of interim, students are busily taking their last exams, handing in their last papers and giving their final presentations. As usual we are offering the standard on campus interim courses such as Bio125 (the first course in our major) and the Biology of Women. We also have some new on campus offerings such as Synapses to Behavior taught by Rob Rozeske (Psychology '05).
In early January we said bon voyage to a number of faculty and students as they headed off on study abroad programs. We have faculty leading students abroad in Costa Rica (Kathy Shea, Tropical Ecology), Peru (Ted Johnson, Peruvian Medical Experience), the American Southwest (Steve Freedberg, Desert Biology), the Biosphere (Jean Porterfield, Bodies and Biomes in Arizona) and in Boulder, CO (Eric Cole, electron Microscopy). We have also welcomed home a number of students from study abroad programs including the ten students from our Biology in S. India program. Each of these students has returned with two research experiences on topics ranging from uses of traditional wild food plants to CO2 sequestration in the forests of the Western Ghats to studies on dengue fever.
January is also the time that the Chair looks forward to what classes we will be offering next year. It is a delicate act balancing what our majors will want to take and what we need to offer and trying to predict what students will actually register for. January is also letter of recommendation season for all of the biology faculty. Each year more and more of our students apply for summer undergraduate research programs, and many of them have a February 1st application deadline. Faculty are busy getting all of those letters in support of our students off to the various programs in time. The good news is that more and more of our students are getting these fantastic opportunities. We still have a vibrant summer research program on campus – 11 biology faculty will be participating this year – and students and faculty are in the midst of planning for these.
As we look forward to Spring, our thoughts turn to another semester full of opportunities. Courses will be taught, exams will be given, grants will be written, discoveries will be made and we will say goodbye to 124 senior biology majors. Many of these students have been accepted to medical schools, they are interviewing for graduate schools, and they are applying for volunteer and job opportunities. We are looking forward to seeing what adventures await the class of 2012.
As alumni, you are all in our thoughts. Please keep us informed about your progress through life and your adventures.
by Melissa (Skluzacek) Blandin '97
I have been a Biology and Anatomy teacher in Burnsville for the past fifteen years since graduating from St. Olaf in 1997. The St. Olaf Biology and Education Departments provided me the depth and breadth of content background that I am able to ground my daily lessons in. However, teaching is so much more than simply conveying the explicit content of the subject matter. It is a creative art form which incorporates multiple disciplines, real-life experiences, and an exponentially increasing amount of information. In this profession that is under fire and in flux now more than ever I have realized there is one constant; my ability to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of education due in large part to the liberal arts education I received at St. Olaf.
The creative art form of teaching is a continual branching cycle. The connections between various lesson plans, creative activities, and real-world applications are limitless. This adds profundities to the explicit content students are engaged in learning. Throughout this branching cycle, flexibility is vital. Constant reflection to monitor and adjust educational methods and practices is essential to meet the required state and national standards as well as local mandates. More importantly, constant reflection and flexibility is essential to truly meet the needs of the individual students.
While the technical content and expressive art form of teaching is fundamental, it cannot be ignored that an indispensable part of education is the human interaction between teacher and student. It is this building of relationships that can encourage a student to actively participate in the learning process. Often the content of a lesson can seem irrelevant unless the teacher has taken care to try to make it significant to the individual students through understanding their personal interests, goals, strengths, and backgrounds. This human connection facilitates true learning.
Effective and dedicated teachers partake in this creative, personable cycle naturally. Some of this is inherent; a number of people simply have the gift for teaching. However, just like any artist with inherent ability, the artist’s true potential is often realized after proper training and practice.
I believe it was my liberal arts education at St. Olaf that prepared me to be successful at this creative art form of teaching. All departments which were a part of my liberal arts education, not only Biology and Education, primed me for my career. My diverse and rich education at St. Olaf encouraged me to take a multidisciplinary approach to teaching. Furthermore, it also taught me to plan and be organized yet be flexible and spontaneous, to logically problem-solve as well as to come up with creative out-of-the-box solutions, to implement my ideas and to reflect upon my actions, to work independently as well as to collaborate in teams, and to voice my opinions while respecting differences. Furthermore, through all the explicit content of the course syllabi, the dedication of the St. Olaf faculty to their students showed me the undeniable importance of the personable side of teaching.
So, as I continue on in my career which is under great reform, the constant I have to hold onto is my strong liberal arts background that has given me the tools to be able to adapt and survive in the increasingly dynamic field of education today.
Melissa graduated from St. Olaf in 1997 with a biology major and 7-12 life science teaching certification. She received her Masters of Arts in Education from St. Mary’s University in 2001. She has taught all levels of Biology, from Basic, to ELL, to Regular, to Honors, as well as Anatomy & Physiology. Melissa currently lives in Dundas, MN with her husband, Greg, and two children, Cavan (9) and Rylee (6).
By Megan McGovern '12
Congratulations to 2003 St. Olaf graduate Alison Smith, who recently received St. Olaf’s Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) Award in recognition of her superior work in the field of Public Health! Evaluated on professional accomplishments, community involvement and St. Olaf involvement, Alison’s dedication to global health makes her a worthy recipient of such an honor.
The knowledge Alison gained at St. Olaf while earning her biology major and concentrations in women’s studies and biomedical studies served as a springboard for her interest in the healthcare field. An exemplar of the Olaf ideal of students becoming global citizens, Alison’s international interests began at St. Olaf and continued after her graduation. In her time on the Hill, she participated in an Interim program to Ecuador as well as researched intestinal parasite prevalence in Tanzania for a semester.
Inspired by her international experiences, and intrigued by the disease prevention and health promotion aspects of public health, Alison went from St. Olaf to Emory University where she earned her Master of Public Health degree in Global Health. For her thesis work, Alison spent two months in Zambia, where she conducted a study on future planning activities and fertility desires of HIV-infected men and women whose spouses had recently died of AIDS to determine the effectiveness of an intervention aimed at getting HIV-infected couples to plan for the future. Alison has since continued her travels to more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global AIDS Program and the Division of Parasitic Diseases. She worked with national health programs and ministries to produce data on HIV/AIDS prevalence rates, planned and coordinated studies on HIV/AIDS and malaria among high-risk populations (including refugees in Sudan) and trained epidemiologists in multiple countries to carry out their own epidemiological studies. One important aspect of Alison’s work in public health is that she arms people with knowledge, rather than offering a “band-aid” solution to a recurring or pervasive problem. This provides the individual or community greater autonomy because they have the knowledge to deal with the situation on their own in the future. It is also a more holistic approach to medicine, which is one of the many aspects that first attracted Alison to the profession.
Despite the positive impact Alison was having through her work in public health, she realized that her true passion wasn’t to simply study the diseases and conditions affecting people; she wanted to cure them. This motivated her to attend Mercer University School of Medicine in pursuit of a Doctor of Medicine degree. Currently in her second year at Mercer, Alison believes her background and experience in global health make her better prepared to be a good clinician in the future. Her public health experiences allow her to avoid the tendency to only treat the symptoms or disease, and help her recognize broader solutions that can fix the problem in the short term as well as keep the patient from needing to return to the clinic in a few months.
Alison plans to use her combination of MD and MPH degrees to continue her international work. She particularly looks forward to continuing her work with refugees and has a special interest in infectious disease. It is these ambitions, deep care for the underserved, and ability to turn ideals into action that earned her St. Olaf’s Graduate of the Last Decade award. Still young, and with plenty of time to have an even greater impact, the St. Olaf community is excited to see what else she will accomplish!
By Anne Walter, Professor of Biology
In 2009-2010 we had the most incredible experience—a chance to spend 7 ½ months of our sabbatical year supported by the Fulbright-Nehru 1 program in India teaching Zoology at Madras Christian College (MCC), visiting the many Biology in South India program sites, catching up with old and making new friends and colleagues as we traveled through India.
Why India? As many of you know, we co-advise the Biology in South India study service program so spending enough time there to really understand what is possible seemed important, especially since India is rapidly undergoing a transition from “developing” to “developed”, in other words, are the premises of the program changing? Is leprosy still a problem? What are the current health and ecological challenges? What areas of biological inquiry are most promising?
In some ways our days were similar to those at St. Olaf. MCC started its day with a short worship service and classes began at 8:30. We taught with Indian colleagues material that students learn at St. Olaf. But in so many ways, things weren’t the same. The students were more regimented taking the same classes as a group and learned in order to pass a standard final exam. The classrooms and labs were open to the air and very crowded. The professors (ma’ms and sirs) each had desks in the department—a large room—that sometimes converted to a meeting or banquet room on special occasions. There was a wonderfully equipped computer room and a library full of very old textbooks. (Thanks to Fulbright and the St. Olaf faculty, that library now has nearly 100 new textbooks.) The hostels (dorms) hosted gala evening events featuring student performances. The Scrub Society (student eco-club) was keen to improve the “green” status of the campus and Fulbright made it possible for us to host a “Green Campus Conference” for 12 local colleges that was a catalyst for projects related to waste handling, guides to the unique scrub jungle ecosystem and fixing leaky taps. It was also a first time that students, faculty and staff met together to come up with ideas. That felt very American.
Going to the grocery and the open air market or taking the metro train into the city of Chen’nai always reminded us we were in India. So did taking our laundry to the dobi to wash and iron with his coal-heated iron. Morning milky coffee and afternoon milky hot tea were accompanied with fried and sweet snacks. The wonderful campus scrub jungle wildlife—peacocks, kingfishers, the incessant ping of the coppersmith barbet—and wildlife where you might not expect it—the kitchen sink frogs, the living room geckos and ants that came from no where—continue to be memorable.
The “Biology in South India” students were at their research sites when we arrived: it was the first time we had seen them “in action” and were able to learn about their projects as they were on-going. They all came to MCC for a memorable Thanksgiving with a group from Furman University and an Elmhurst music professor, Mark Harbold (St. Olaf '76), also on sabbatical. St. Olaf connections included MCC faculty who had visited St. Olaf, our local host, Prince Annadurai, and two Kierkegaard scholars: we gathered with them and their students to remember Howard Hong. We gave a talk comparing the mission and values of St. Olaf and MCC for the community study circle and presented a paper to a local group of environomental writers (OSLE-India).
Fulbright also kept us busy. Mike gave a memorable series of talks in Indore and we were both invited to Coimbatorre to speak at a conference on entomology and climate change. We were pressed to speak extemporaneously at a conference on genetics (a bit outside our expertise), met with Indian Fulbrighters, gave workshops on writing proposals and visited with students who hope to study in the US.
It is the kindness of people that we won’t forget. We were invited “home” for meals and included as honored guests at multiple events (this did always mean a speech and giving out certificates). A little restaurant in Chennai adopted us when we were tired and hungry. A school-boy guided us on our first bus travels and a school-girl defended our seats on a crowded train. Several amazing trips will stay with us forever. We spent a day at a student’s village home eating, touring the farm fields, the local shrine and, most touchingly, we were asked to encourage a large group of local children to study and stay in school. A trip to Kerala was carefully planned by two colleagues and friends—overnight train, the magic pink water of Kerala, meeting their friends and staying with their families for holiday ceremonies, a wedding, seeing rubber harvested and local pilgrims before they let us go on our own for a night on a houseboat, and on toward Nagercoil (Paul Zorn’s home) and the very tip of India.
India is about trust… “come, come sir, come ma’am” – we learned that we should follow those calls even when we had no idea of what was about to happen except that something special was prepared, something important was there for us to see. We know there is more and hope to return again in the not too distant future. We hope too that many of you will travel there as well.
1Fulbright programs are administered through the State Department, vary widely depending on the country and are intended to bring professionals and academics from the US to engage with peers in their host countries. Many of you might be eligible!