“How do you tell the sex of a banana slug?”
It’s a good question, and it comes on a rainy evening in Hitchcock Hall during a session of Biology 492A: Biology Teaching Methods for K-12 Teachers. The class is discussing the banana slugs that creep wetly along student wrists and hands held up for observation.
This course is part of a long UW tradition of preparing teachers of biology that was started in the 1960s by Ingrith Deyrup-Olsen, professor of zoology known to all — even David Letterman — as The Slug Lady.
Only a few mild gasps of “eew” are heard this evening as the students study the slugs and their slimy trails. After all, this class is for undergraduate biology majors and master’s students in education aiming to become biology teachers themselves.
Plus, they’re cheered on by their professor, Helen Buttemer, director of Biology Programs for Teachers. “There’s nothing that animal can do to you — nothing— even though it has a tongue with 27,000 teeth,” she says with a smile. “So overcome your squeamishness and pick one up!” She later muses, “I truly love banana slugs, they’re so interesting. They live without any covering, except mucus.”
Buttemer clearly loves this stuff. She has an engaging classroom manner and an interest in biology that goes back to her own small-town childhood of “collecting tadpoles and watching them metamorphose into frogs” as well as several later years of K-12 teaching.
Buttemer has directed Biology Programs for Teachers since 1986, but she is quick to say that Deyrup-Olsen, who retired in 1990 and died in 2004, was the program’s heart and soul.
“I admired her so much,” Buttemer says in a separate conversation. “In the 1960s she started lobbying for the science departments to pay more attention to teacher preparation. The first one she did was a master’s degree for existing biology teachers, so they could come back here and get an update in content but at the same time get a research experience … so they have credibility as scientists themselves when they are teaching.”
The masters degree was changed from an MAT to an MS degree in the 1990s. It’s administered by The Graduate School, Buttemer said, “but its de facto home is here in biology, and that’s entirely due to Ingrith. She had such respect here in the Biology Department that whatever she started had a natural momentum to it. And it was just my job to keep it going. I expanded it a little bit.”
She said it’s “really something” that with campus space at such a premium the department also supports a teaching lab and resource center for K-12 teachers.
Biology Programs for Teachers has three main elements:
- Overseeing biology endorsements of new teachers in biology.
- Offering a master’s degree in biology for existing teachers, and
- Offering summer programs for working teachers, funded by the Howard Hughes Institute and called the Summer Institute in Life Science.
Buttemer also teaches Biology 104, for future elementary school teachers, where the focus, she says, is, “How do you take what you know in biology and turn it into a meaningful experience in a classroom? What kind of resources can you use … inexpensively, and what kind of help there is for you?”
Part of the mission is just helping teachers be more comfortable with nature. If a teacher winces over a worm, for instance, “then they’ve missed a really important chance to help students bond with nature,” Buttemer says. “And that’s what our job as elementary teachers is, to help little kids fall in love with nature.”
It’s hard for teachers to keep up with all the innovation in biology, Buttemer says, but they can give their students a basic understanding of the process of science. “We want teachers at all levels to understand that science is a way of asking questions about the world, then answering those questions as best we can with evidence.”
Or, as she tells students on this rainy evening in Biology 492A, “It’s OK not to know everything — as long as you can help your students ask the next logical question that will lead them toward understanding.”
As the class continues, Buttemer tours the room explaining the evening’s hands-on activities featuring crickets, insects, crayfish, owl pellets, skulls, hissing cockroaches and the banana slugs, and relates all to how the students will run their own biology classes one day.
“Everybody needs an insect collection! Kids love this kind of stuff!” Then, “You’ve never dissected an owl pellet? How can you never have done that? See what’s in it!” She later tells them, “Biology teachers are really good at marshaling resources they have in their environment.”
The students appreciate Buttemer’s approach. “It’s all practical. She’s thought through the entire curriculum,” says Riley Brazil, taking 492A as he begins a master’s in teaching. “She has a tremendous amount of experience.”
Buttemer says biology teachers must model environmental responsibility for their students. She in turn gently models classroom skills for these future teachers. She admonishes her students to check with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife before collecting organisms like crayfish from local streams, and to never release organisms into the environment afterward. “We have a real problem with invasive crayfish in Washington and teachers and their students have played a part by releasing classroom pets into local lakes.”
Oh, and to answer the student’s earlier question on determining the sex of banana slugs: They’re hermaphrodites.
Which is just another starting point for Buttemer: “That leads to another great question: How do they ‘do’ it?” she asks, and displays a book that explains such matters for grade school students. Then the answer: “These guys do it neck to neck,” she says. “Like commas.”
Buttemer’s classes are just early steps on the teaching journey being undertaken by her students. But even after they move on to their own classrooms, many tend to stay in touch with Buttemer — as they did with Deyrup-Olsen years ago.
“They often tell me, “Biology 104 was one of the most practical classes I’ve ever taken. I’ve still got my lab manual and I’m using it every day,” Buttemer recalls fondly.
“’And by the way — where can I get some hissing cockroaches?’”