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Graduate students


Teaching evolution
Ernst Mayr Scientist
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I concentrated on teaching evolution, and it was more or less always given as a form of a seminar course with me teaching first… the first six or so… occasions where we met, and then the students took over with term papers. And the main idea of the course always was a very active interchange between professor and students. And I had… I was lucky in some years that I would have students that would constantly try to contradict me, and the one who was most lively and I would have loved to have had him every single year was Roger Milkman who is now Professor at the University of Iowa. But eventually I developed a new way of giving that course, not entirely new because I learned about it from a professor of anthropology but I never had heard about it before. It was still the basic idea of a term paper being discussed, but what I did was that the first student that was scheduled for his term paper, I took his paper, had it xeroxed, or in those days, mimeographed, and then… that was a week before he was to perform… then I gave a copy to each member of the class and each member of the class had to submit in writing to me three criticisms of this paper. And then the actual class consisted in the author of the paper just sitting there and defending himself against these criticisms. The result was… not only was the entire class immensely interested in what was going on, also they all had read that… that term paper so they knew about this particular subject, and they learned by arguing with each other a great deal about scientific methodology. And this course was so successful that very soon I had a lot of application from other students, could they sit in, in the back of the room and watch the proceedings, and I said yes and we supplied about 20 chairs or so, but pretty soon this was not enough and we had to move to a larger room. We still… the actual participants in the class sat around a table at one side of the room and then there were rows and rows of chairs where all the other students sat learning how to run such a course. And there were… this included the students that had hoped, or were hoping, to take the course the next year, just to learn the techniques so that they would perform better.

The late German-American biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a leading light in the field of evolutionary biology, gaining a PhD at the age of 21. He was also a tropical explorer and ornithologist who undertook an expedition to New Guinea and collected several thousand bird skins. In 1931 he accepted a curatorial position at the American Museum of Natural History. During his time at the museum, aged 37, he published his seminal work 'Systematics and Origin of the Species' which integrated the theories of Darwin and Mendel and is considered one of his greatest works.

Listeners: Walter J. Bock

Walter J. Bock is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Columbia University. He received his B.Sc. from Cornell and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His research lies in the areas of organismal and evolutionary biology, with a special emphasis on functional and evolutionary morphology of the skeleto-muscular system, specifically the feeding apparatus of birds.

Tags: University of Iowa, Roger Dawson Milkman

Duration: 3 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008