By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
With his passion for in-the-field learning, biology professor Morgan Wilson is opening students’ eyes to their environment.
“Come check it out!”
Clad in hunting waders, Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson emerged from Hollins’ Oyster Pond (near Moody) on an unseasonably warm, early autumn morning, a live trap for turtles in tow. The trap had humanely caught two eastern painted turtles, and 11 first-year students eagerly approached it to experience a facet of the campus ecosystem that they otherwise may never have noticed or appreciated.
Last fall, Wilson and Hollins Outdoor Program Director Jon Guy Owens collaborated to develop and teach “Thinking Like a Mountain: Discovery, Exploration, and Conservation of Our Natural World.” The new first-year seminar was inspired by two classic volumes on conservation, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (“Thinking Like a Mountain” is the title of one of the book’s most famous essays) and Last Child in the Woods, in which author Richard Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe young people’s estrangement from the environment.
“Our goal is to use a combination of exercises and readings to get them more in touch with nature,” Wilson explained during another exercise where students sought out Hollins’ monarch butterfly population. “You’re not as likely to care about things you don’t understand. When you understand the ecosystem, you’re more likely to preserve it.”
Besides getting up close and personal with reptiles and insects on campus, students in the class canoed down the James River, went caving, and navigated a night hike using celestial cues. One of the students’ assignments throughout the semester was spending at least an hour weekly in a “wild space” away from activity on the fringes of campus. “We have a mechanism in place so someone always knows when they are going to the spot, so they can go by themselves with no technology, no distractions other than what they are experiencing when they are out there, and journal about it,” Wilson said. “We encourage them to go to their wild spot at different times of the day and they’re seeing deer, skunks, raccoons, lots of bird and invertebrate life.
“We’re training them in the scientific method, and the beginning of that process is making observations and asking questions. The students are not all science majors, so it’s exciting to see them develop.”
Hands-on learning has long been Wilson’s passion. Raised in a family of teachers, he grew up an avid outdoorsman and curious about nature. After earning his degree in biology at Hampden-Sydney College, he chose to enter graduate school at Virginia Tech over likely admission to medical school. His love of scientific research grew, and he quickly discovered during a teaching assistantship that he enjoyed being in front of a classroom. His career path was set.
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Mississippi, Wilson recalled, “I wanted a position with a small, close-knit department that offered lots of interaction, including one-on-one research opportunities, with students. Hollins was at the top of my list of where I wanted to be.”
Since joining the biology faculty in 2002, Wilson has gone from taking students on a summer trip to study wildlife in Canada’s subarctic region to joining Professor of Biology Renee Godard in leading an exploration of the ecosystem in the U.S. Virgin Islands during the 2012 and 2013 January Short Terms. His current research involves studying why a particular species of duck, the Blue-winged Teal, migrates differently from almost all other waterfowl, a project that has taken him to the Prairie Pothole Region, an area of shallow wetlands in the northern Great Plains.
Whether in the field or the classroom, Wilson said, “I want to challenge my students, but I also want them to know I’m supporting them. I like seeing students who are willing to grapple with stuff that’s difficult. It’s rewarding for me to see talented students succeed, but it’s equally rewarding to see students who may initially struggle, but they don’t give up, they work at it, and they succeed.”
Wilson added that drawing upon his memories of professors who were particularly effective and seeking guidance on an ongoing basis from his colleagues have helped him gain insight on “what works and what doesn’t. If you taught a course in the exact same way every time, the students would sense that it was stale. In teaching this first-year seminar, Jon Guy and I are taking a new approach within the material and using new laboratory exercises. The students sense our excitement and have responded by jumping in with both feet. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.
Photos by Sam Dean