The great outdoors provides living, squirming lab for Gene Wingert’s students
by Michelle Simmons
July 1, 2011
Lily Bieber-Ham ’11 (right) helps Gene Wingert during an Adopt a Turtle fundraiser for the Friends of Wildwood Park, held in Harrisburg in April.
Gene Wingert nearly blushes when he’s compared with Edward O. Wilson, the renowned scientist who garnered two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction and who wrote the acclaimed novel, Anthill. But Wingert does have a thing or two in common with the Harvard biologist: an affinity for crossing disciplines and a genuine biophilia, as Wilson calls it, for all creatures great and small.
“My mother said when I was 3 years old, I used to be out in the grass looking at ants,” Wingert recalls. “I collected snakes when I was in the first grade and had black widow spiders in jars. There’s a certain kind of curiosity that just seems to be born into some people.”
Since 1967, Wingert has been sharing that curiosity with his students—first as a high-school science teacher, then later at Harrisburg Area Community College and Wilson and Dickinson colleges. Wingert’s title at Dickinson is visiting instructor in biology. But the longtime expert in Northeast flora and fauna, as well as science education, teaches in several departments—biology, environmental studies and education.
He also is a contributing faculty member to the Center for Sustainability Education’s Valley and Ridge Study Group, which helps professors from all divisions incorporate sustainability elements into their curricula. Its focus is decidedly local. “Biology has to be down home,” Wingert says. “You have to learn how to appreciate your own backyard before you can appreciate anyone else’s.”
Wingert adds that high-school biology curricula—and K-12 education in general—has become more standardized over the years. As a result, many students start college with little field experience.
So his first priority? Get them outdoors.
“In the fall I have them do an insect collection, which is foreign to many of them,” he says. “They get into that hunting mode, and you’ll see them all over campus with their butterfly nets.”
For one of Wingert’s recent first-year seminars, Sustaining Northeastern Wildlife, students helped with island clean-up on a canoe trip down the Susquehanna River, observed a saw-whet-owl banding project and went camping in Elk County in northwestern Pennsylvania, where morning conversations often were interrupted by elk bugling nearby.
In April, Wingert’s Introduction to Biology classes worked with Assistant Professor of Biology Scott Boback’s students to tag turtles at Wildwood Park in Harrisburg. They caught 70 turtles, including four massive snappers. Boback then injected the terrapins with passive-integrated transponders (PIT) tags, similar to microchips for pets.
Following turtles with PIT tags allow researchers to estimate their population, track growth rates, determine how long turtles live and assess the overall health of Wildwood’s wetland ecosystem, Wingert explains.
And because Wingert also serves on the Friends of Wildwood Park board of directors, he suggested holding an Adopt a Turtle fundraiser. Anyone who “adopted” one of the turtles at $20 each received a certificate with the PIT tag number and would be notified each time the turtle is caught. On April 30, during Wildwood’s Wetlands Festival, all 70 were claimed by noon.
Wingert notes the importance of having students participate in projects like the Adopt a Turtle event, even if they have no intention of becoming a biologist. Local species have disappeared at a rapid rate, he says, raising his hand and counting off several types of amphibians, wildflowers and trees. The natural world in which he grew up is nothing like the one he’s showing his students today.
“Students start to get it once we’re in the field,” he says. “When you can actually see a salamander and touch it and hold it, that’s hands-on. That experience alone is worth more than anything you can do in a classroom the whole term.”
View a video of Wingert’s turtle-tagging excursion in April with students and fellow biologist Scott Boback.