UW Today

This is an archived article.

May 31, 2007

Terry Swanson

Terry Swanson firmly believes a key to his teaching success is making classes intimate. The trick is to create intimacy — a sense of personal connection — in a freshman class with as many as 600 students packed into a cavernous lecture hall. There are several techniques to make it happen, says Swanson, a senior lecturer in Earth and space sciences and recipient of a 2007 UW Distinguished Teaching Award.

It begins with students taking a few minutes at the start of the quarter to fill out index cards with their names, a bit of personal information and what they’d like Swanson to teach, giving them a role “within reason” in determining their curriculum. He might teach a specific point during the quarter because a student asked about it on an index card, and he will note that during the lecture.


He likes to move up and down the aisles in the Kane Hall classroom, engaging students as he talks. He has students develop 2-minute mini-lectures on points they raise, to deliver to the entire class. He or his teaching assistants conduct numerous field trips, and he estimates he rubs elbows with one-third of his class during those excursions.

“I like the diversity of students,” says Swanson. “They are typically nonmajors from all areas of the University. I get excited sharing what I love with students who come in with different ideas of what they want to take away from the class.”

Not only has Swanson taught the basic geology course — “rocks for jocks” — since he was a doctoral student and teaching assistant in 1991, he also covers his share of upper-level and graduate-level courses and intimacy is still a key ingredient.

Of course, those classes only get to be, at most, about one-tenth the size of the 101 sections. “In almost all my upper division classes there are 10-minute mini-lectures. The students help teach the classes and they develop speaking skills. It helps to personalize the class.”

Regardless of class size, Swanson said, respect is a key component among the students themselves and between him and the students. He often encounters students whose religious beliefs regarding creation run counter to the scientific principles he teaches. But that’s OK, he said, as long as they respect that he is teaching science as it exists and he respects their deeply held beliefs.

Many students find field trips an exciting part of Swanson’s classes. In the introductory course he offers nine field trips per quarter, including one to the IMAX Theater at Pacific Science Center. For extra credit, there is one field trip that students find out about only if they attend class — a visit to a cemetery to study the differences in weathering on tombstones made of quartz, marble and other materials.

“It seems a little morbid, but they have fun with it and they can see the relevance of how science works,” he said.

Morbid maybe, but it’s that type of effort that inspires students. “His course material is challenging, stimulating and diverse. He is able to show students from a variety of majors where geology is important in their area of study,” wrote former student Patricia Terhune-Inverso.

“The most memorable moments of taking classes from Terry are his field trips. They are legendary: full of excitement and adventure. These adventures range from being stuck in the snow on a glacial moraine in eastern Washington to wandering through the woods on Whidbey Island to find an elusive glacial erratic.”

Perhaps as important, in the eyes of Robert Winglee, Earth and space sciences chairman, are students’ research opportunities, thanks to Swanson. “While many professors on campus provide such opportunities, it is very rare that a senior lecturer can provide such opportunities,” Winglee wrote. He added that Swanson has even secured funding from the National Science Foundation to include undergraduate and graduate students in this research.

Swanson’s teaching, plus the research opportunities, persuaded Justin Nelson, a political science and anthropology major, to add a minor in Earth and space sciences.

“Terry’s enthusiasm captivates his classes and drives them to succeed,” Nelson wrote.

“I have not found an instructor who is as enthralling and enthusiastic as Terry.”