Monday, March 12, 2012

The Horseshoe Crab Diaries Part Five: In Which Paul Has a Genuine Self-Directed Learning Experience

Last week I was reminded of why I do the work I do. Of course I have a lot of reasons why I do what I do: I love working with live animals, I love museum people, I love getting paid to take students to salt marshes and our other beautiful coastal New England habitats...

But the real crux of why I do what I do and not some other kind of education is that I really believe that self-directed learning experiences are the most influential on future behavior. The data back me up on this (I don't have a citation for you here, I just remember reading a lot about this in graduate school...I'd be happy to try to dig one up if anyone's interested). I had two separate experiences that reminded me how motivating (how much dopamine is involved) these experiences can be.

Last week I was teaching a class on classification (i.e. how scientists group animals and decide how they are related). We wanted to represent the eight major animal phyla but the phylum platyhelminthes (flat worms) are tough to fine. While they are a very specious and common kind of animal many of them are either parasitic or tiny or both.

So there I am, it's towards the end of the last class for the day and I'm looking at the horseshoe crab we brought. Particularly I'm looking at his legs. Horseshoe crabs have these little white boogers on their legs and when I first started my job I never really noticed them. Then I started noticing but I never thought much about them. Then I learned from an aquarist that they are alive; they're animals. So I'm standing there in class and my coworker comes over and sees me looking at them and asks "Oh...are those platyhelminthes?" I wasn't sure...but I thought, maybe they are.

Turns out they are...I immediately looked into it after work that day and found this great article about different animals that "live on limulus." There's a section a ways down about flat worms and describes the current confusion in the literature about whether these flat worms are parasitic or commensal or what. The next time you're at a salt marsh, if you pick up a limulus (carefully by the "helmet") and look at his or her legs you may notice these little white "boogers." If you poke one gently you'll see them start to move and probably notice the front of the animal poking around upwards, away from the body of the limulus. These are probably the only flat worms I've ever really observed.

These experiences (my second one involved learning something pretty specific about the way sea urchin's internal skeletons are set up...probably too technical to add to this post) reminded me of two things: I still have a ton to learn about the animals I work with and these self-directed learning experiences are highly rewarding and the most likely to direct my future knowledge and behavior. Because I went from noticing but not really knowing to noticing and curious to noticing and knowing I am a lot more likely (this claim is based on my personal experience) to remember this and be able to use this information in the future. I really don't think there's any way I can forget that those little white blobby guys are flat worms.

I think the upshot here is: if you are an educator it is your duty to try as hard as humanly possible never to stop being curious. If we are asked a question by our students or we realize that we don't understand something about the subjects we teach about it is imperative that we learn more. I knew this to be true before last week, it is something I have always believed intellectually, that the best educators are life-long learners. I just hadn't had such a rewarding learning experience like this one in a while. Thanks again, limulus!