Learning about frogs and snakes gets high school students interested in scientific research, helps them overcome fears and opens their eyes to parts of their community they’ve never noticed before.
Associate Professor of Education Terry Tomasek also suspects it gets them interested in studying science. Tomasek teaches a herpetology course—the study of reptiles and amphibians—to students enrolled in The Elon Academy, a college access and success program.
“I know many of my students are choosing to major in science,” Tomasek says. “I don’t know that it’s because of my class in Elon Academy. I do think it’s contributed to how they see their communities and how they see themselves. That’s important to me as well.”
A four-year, $2.7 million grant Elon, along with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and University of North Carolina at Pembroke, received in 2011 from the National Science Foundation funds the Herpetological Education in Rural Spaces and Places (HERPS) course Tomasek teaches, as well as other statewide initiatives she’s involved in.
Besides the Elon Academy summer course, weeklong programs for high school students and teachers are offered in Efland, N.C., and Fayetteville, N.C. Students continue with their herpetology studies and research throughout the school year and get involved in statewide science projects. In addition, community-wide celebration events held around the state educate the public about reptiles.
“The bottom line goal is to interest people in reptiles and amphibians and to show how informal science learning can make a difference in the lives of not only school children but also the community at large,” Tomasek says.
Tomasek has taught the herpetology course in The Elon Academy since 2009 and every year she discovers that for most of her students, the class is their introduction to the world of reptiles and amphibians. Many of her students comment that, for the first time, they are noticing amphibians and reptiles in their neighborhoods and school communities.
By the end of her four-week class, students know more about amphibians and reptiles and where to find them. They also have the opportunity to hold a variety of amphibians and reptiles including snakes, which often results in them conquering a fear—an experience they can apply to the rest of their lives.
“What I want them to learn and what I encourage them to know is that fear should not be the thing that stop us from doing anything,” Tomasek says. “... We should learn about what we are afraid of but then we should try to step through those fears and challenges.”
As part of the HERPS program, students survey populations of organisms in a variety of habitat types including ephemeral pools—important breeding grounds for amphibians, forests, lakes and urban sites —around Alamance County and provide that information to the Carolina Herp Atlas, a statewide database. As part of a partnership with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, students collect voucher specimens or take photos of reptiles and amphibians in the county. That information also gets added to the database and the voucher specimens are kept at a museum facility.
“So whereas at one point in time Alamance County was poorly documented, when the Elon Academy scholars are finished, Alamance County will become one of the best documented counties in the state,” Tomasek says. “We are quite proud of the contributions we are making to science in the state of North Carolina.”
In conjunction with the HERPS grant, Tomasek is researching how high school students in the program identify themselves in relation to science.
“For many students, they don’t see themselves as science kind of people or they don’t even see themselves as outdoor kind of people because of the walls or boundaries that are there,” she says. “My goal as a teacher of herpetology in the Elon Academy is not to crank out a bunch of a little scientists. My goal is to nurture young people who see themselves and see their community in new ways.”
As a professor, Tomasek teaches science methodology to college students studying to be elementary, middle grades or high school teachers. Her experiences with Elon Academy as well as her research are part of what she shares in her undergraduate classes and at conferences with other teachers and science educators.
In addition, Tomasek along with three other colleagues, has co-authored the book Be a Scientist! Bring Biology to Life Through Citizen Science. It’s targeted at middle school teachers and is about engaging children in authentic science. It’s expected to be released late fall or early winter.
Tomasek joined Elon’s faculty in 2006. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Florida, master’s degrees in teaching and biology from Marshall University and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.