Back to school

December 6, 2010

Last summer Roz suggested that the course of Dr. William Newcomb, known as “Dino Bill” to his students, would be a good fit for me. Trees of Canada, Biology 529, is a seminar offered to fourth year Queen’s undergraduate students.

During the introductions I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that this was my first university course since 1980. The comment led to the first of a series of blank looks from the seven women and three men in the class. They appeared to have no way to comprehend a creature from this era.

What’s more, this artifact insisted upon making comments in class. Perhaps no one in the room was more discomfited than Dino Bill. When my prof told me he had his own portable saw mill, I reasonably asked him for the make and model. His mouth dropped. I don’t think one of his students had ever asked him that. Same thing happened when he mentioned his skidder. I had seen one of that model for sale on Kijiji that morning.

Dino Bill assigned a short seminar on tree-cutting rules in their home municipalites, so the students reported from Montreal, Winnipeg, the Ottawa Valley, Ottawa, Bermuda, England, Australia, and three boroughs of Toronto.

Unlike graduate students who seem to have quite a bit of flexibility in their schedules, these undergrads seemed very pressed for time. When I invited the class to the woodlot for an afternoon walkabout, a couple of members of the class did the math and came up with a total time commitment of five hours. They reluctantly concluded that it couldn’t work this semester. There just wasn’t enough time.

The 8:30 class had perfect attendance. The only slightly-late arrivals were those who had seminars that day, who often came in showing the effects of very little sleep. But the handouts, graphics and oral presentations were of the first order.

After three decades of trying with limited success to teach students how to write good point-form outlines, I was delighted to see the quality of the outlines these guys produced. I asked Eric how he learned to write this way. “Uh, I sorta watch what the other students do, and then try really hard to match it.” Well try they do, and they succeed. Over the course of a full semester of written materials, I did not notice a single error of spelling or grammar.

I told Eric and anyone within earshot that in the outside world their writing and presentation skills alone are a very marketable skill, regardless of their scientific knowledge.

As Roz anticipated, the content of the course proved highly interesting to this veteran tree-hugger. The chemistry was way beyond me, but the rest was just fine. The big surprise was the lack of a textbook for the course. Most of the seminar material came from Internet websites devoted to tree cultivation and biology.

For the most part this worked well. The only weak spot in the data seemed to be the trap of a popular map marking the range of each tree species: it must have been designed by a politics major, for it painted the whole province or state green if that particular tree was found in it.

At 8:30 on a Tuesday morning it is hard to look at an illustration of the entire province of Ontario painted green to describe the range of the sugar maple. This error made its way through most of the seminars, which illustrated that while these are bright young people, they have little real-world experience yet. The image of maples growing on permafrost along the shore of Hudson’s Bay — I just can’t get it out of my head.

But the students were in their element on the biochemistry of cancer-fighting compounds extracted from British Columbia yew and red cedar. The history of the willow tree parallels the evolution of modern medicine.

Bill assigned me a seminar on the managed forest, a program for privately-owned woodlots in Ontario. I showed up with a 16-page handout of our management plan and a reprint of a Review-Mirror column on the subject. I started off by asking the students the following question:

“Assume you have been put in charge of a substantial woodlot. Please list in order of preference the following benefits you would like to receive from the property:

ecological benefits, recreation, wildlife habitat, money, wood products, aesthetics.”

A glance at their papers showed money at the top of almost every list!

Another surprise came when I finally realized that these were not English literature students. For years I have observed print-fixated English majors in meetings latching onto the first available thing to read and rudely ignoring the speaker. I thought my current classmates were extremely polite to resist the temptation of the printed page in favour of the talking head, but I gradually realized that reading is work, not fun, for biology students.

The best thing about the course, undoubtedly, was the young people in it. Dino Bill said they are an uncommonly good lot, and I would have to agree. If they are Canada’s future, we’re in pretty good hands.

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