Snakes in a Classroom

snakes in a classroom

 

“Mr. Romano, I finished my work can I go get a snake?”

This often asked question by my students is the reason I became a teacher. More so, I have discovered that snakes can be an unbelievable teaching tool in the classroom. Lessons from Mendelian genetics to evolutionary adaptations reside in the cylindrical body of one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.  I have been keeping snakes in my classroom for well over a decade. I keep a variety of species from my first boa I got at the age of 16 to an Eastern Indigo, a fascinating and protected species of snake.

The biggest reason I keep snakes in the classroom is not just for my enjoyment. I keep many at home as well. The reason is that snakes have the ability to instill confidence. Snakes, like bugs, come with a stigma. A fear that is so deeply rooted in some it is believed to be innate. I have had many students complain about the snakes in my classroom when they first enter my class. The complaints are generally about the inability to focus because they are nervous, but my favorite snake complaint so far in my teaching career was when a student raised his hand and said “Mr. Romano, that snakes keeps looking at me.”

The students may enter the year uncomfortable with the room, but daily exposure to snakes  in a controlled environment soon turns that fear into comfort, and comfort soon becomes curiosity.  Watching the body language of a student change as they hold a snake for the first time is what teaching is all about. Timid, stiff, and shaky when its first put into their hand. Then as the snake calmly moves around and they realize they are actually holding a snake they fight an urge to smile, stand a little taller, and in today’s current age of technology say “Can you take a picture with my phone”.

This is the real essence of teaching science, to develop curiosity and confidence in the student.  This combination provides the foundation for education, especially science education. The drive for inquiry is only as strong as the person’s ability to deal with setbacks. Students are going to face obstacles in both their education and their life. I know my students will face adversity in their pursuit of science in higher education. I may not be able to bring  equality to the world, but I can bring out the confidence in a teenager so they can overcome the inequalities and succeed.

Enter the serpent.

I have been keeping a variety of snakes in my classroom for over a decade. Each student is exposed to the snakes within their own comfort level. Minimally they see the snakes in the cages in the room, and at the other end of the spectrum they will participate in holding and feeding the snakes.  Regardless of where they start, all the students end up shifting forward on the spectrum. Those that were only comfortable viewing them from across the room eventually view them from in front of the cage. Those who were comfortable watching someone hold them eventually end up holding one themselves.

The ultimate reward for me came when one of my students decided to start a reptile club for other students. Saniyyah is a senior and has worked with me for a few years. This year she has gained enough knowledge to work with the snakes unsupervised.

Saniyyah attended Science Online Teen and was in a session about Women in Science being moderated by Hilda Bastian. Hilda asked the students to write something positive someone has said to you on a notecard. I was not in this session, but through the power of twitter I was able to see her response.

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There is grandeur in this style of teaching, that from so simple a form as a snake, endless lessons most inspiring and wonderful have been, and are being learned.

Oh, a snake’s ability to instill confidence is not limited to just students, it works on Phd possessing PLoS Sci-Ed bloggers as well.

Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.
Sci-Ed blogger Cristina Russo holds her first snake, A green tree python. Her smile says it all.

Next week I will lay out the simple task of acquiring and caring for one of the most misunderstood animals on the planet.

 

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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