As I write these words, I think about my students. I begin with them for yet another semester, the eager faces, the young folks who would be doctors, scientists, agricultural technologists, teachers, the young folks for whom the main obstacle to their dreams is their lack of education. They are here, in my classroom, to remedy that. I owe them the fullest opportunity I can give them. I owe them the same chance that my professors gave me more years ago than I can remember.

The class I faced today was an ecology class, 18 students, mostly women, in fact, only a single young man. My general ecology professor was Tom Kennerly, a man who spent his hours sitting on a stool watching 13 lined ground squirrels as they emerged from burrows, sought sun, sought shade, nibbled at vegetation, gathered seeds to stuff into cheek pouches and scurry underground. Professor Kennerly used an old style stop watch as he worked, and he continuously and carefully recorded times in his notebook in neat columns and rows for periods of the day and for individual squirrels.

People who saw him at the park may have thought him daft, from the jokes that some students made about him, sitting out there in the sun wearing an old sombrero. Intent on the squirrels, it mattered not to him. Due to Doc Kennerly’s efforts, we know more about time management among rodents than most people ever thought they wanted to know or thought needed to be known. And because we know that, we are able to know something about energy expenditures and gains for various activities. By comparing these values with similar ones for other kinds of animals, of different life spans, sizes, degrees of parental care to offspring, ecologists have arrived at some understanding of the patterns by which various animals exploit nature — a phenomenon referred to in technical jargon as their niches. There is a theory that partially explains these evolved patterns, a theory called r and K selection theory.

I’ll be sharing a lot of this with the students this semester. And they’ll get their own chance to sit on a stool just as my professor did, 40 years ago in Arlington, Texas. They’ll even get to read some of his writings, as published in journals. I wish I had one of his notebooks to share with them, but instead, my own, from other sorts of projects, and those of some previous students, will have to do. Today we use computers where Doc Kennerly used a pencil, a pad, and an old, noisy, clanking, calculating machine. But basically, we do the same things he did, as we try to understand.

They’ll have a chance to get wet, too, as we census fish in a creek that flows into the Cimarron River, as I have more times than I am able to recall. I wonder how many of them expected to do these kinds of things when they came to college? For me, the activities we engage in and that I hope will help them to understand not only the ideas of science, but how the ideas come to be and how they can contribute to the ideas themselves are simply a part of a long walk through life. I knew from a fairly early age that these were the things I wanted to spend my life doing. When I learned that there was a way to earn a living while doing them, then I was set.

What about the students? More of them want to be medical doctors than anything else. Some of them probably wonder what tramping through grasslands to a grove of trees so we can bore holes in them to determine how old they are, or what calculating life expectancy for a particular cohort of people based on data from tombstones has to do with their future of delivering babies, or whatever. I’ve had students ask me questions like that. A freshman student in a general education course once asked me, “Why do we have to take biology? What does it have to do with our lives?” That question was an opportunity for me, probably one the student had not anticipated.

People who have read old and recent reports related to a matter at hand, who have examined the matter, and arrived at a prospective explanation based on what has been learned before, these people may be better prepared to face life, regardless of their professional goals, than people who have not done these things. Folks who have taken the matter a bit further, who have themselves devised a protocol for collecting data that have the potential to show the explanation wrong, who have carried out the observations, collected the appropriate data, analyzed them statistically, and arrived at a conclusion regarding the verity of the explanation — these people will face life with greater confidence than will those who have never performed these acts.

People who have written up their conclusions for others, who have stood in front of an audience and reported on the experiment or the descriptive study they’ve carried out, have a jump on others when it comes to completing many other tasks in life. Training in science is not just training to perform a particular job in the future. It is training for life.

A few days ago a young man came to me for advice on his curriculum. He reported that he is majoring in biology, but that he hopes to complete a second major in history, preparatory to pursuing a master’s degree in public policy.

I asked him, “And then what?”

“Oh, I plan to run for office, and devote my life to government.” “Why major in biology?” I asked. He replied that almost all elected government officials are lawyers (actually, he was wrong, but many do come from that background), and few know anything about science, yet they are making decisions that could be better made using a scientific approach. Further, they are making decisions that should be based on scientific information, such as decisions about pollution control, health matters, and so on. They are dealing with science all the time, yet they know little. So he wants to be a public servant with scientific training. I was gratified, and eager to help him. Science is good education, whether one will ever be a scientist or not. I’d like for my congressman or congresswoman to understand it, and perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chance to vote for the young man I advised that day.

On the day this column appears, I’ll be telling that class of 17 women and a man about the role of evolution in ecology, and sending them off to read on the subject themselves. They should be able to find appropriate material in the university library. That’s not always a given.

In Oklahoma, university libraries are poorly funded, as are most aspects of higher education. I recently asked my students to locate a particular research data base, one that is almost universally available through academic libraries. But it is not available at most Oklahoma university libraries, because it is expensive. The state needs to respect my students more, and to respect the salary that it pays me to teach them. After all, if I am worthy of the salary, and if my students are Oklahoma’s future, then the tools for me to help the students toward that future should be provided.

(Please feel free to e-mail any comments to dlmcneely@lunet.edu)

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