“Dr. McNamara wants you to take everything you know and figure out the solution on your own.” – Barbara Zawlocki
Rather than being “the expert” in the classroom, animal scientist John McNamara wants to shift that role to his students. Those in his non-ruminant nutrition course at Washington State University are expected to develop an “expert system” with computer program application. They must gather information in his and other classes, from the library, and on-line. Then they must put the material together in a logical system and teach it to someone else.
The students learn by creating their own data base of information and by sharing their resources with others.
“The fun part for me, and the hard part for them, is that it forces them to be correct. If they’re not correct, the expert system doesn’t work,” says McNamara. Last fall, he was named the state Science Teacher of the Year in higher education for 2001 by the Washington Science Teachers Association. He has been teaching at WSU for 18 years.
Science isn’t complicated if students start using the scientific method early, he says. He asks them to make observations, provide a hypothesis, and test it by literature research experiments. More observations follow, and more interpretations.
McNamara, who also teaches pet nutrition among others courses, spends 55 percent of his time in research, which enhances his teaching. He believes the ideal learning situation is to have an active researcher active in the classroom. “We’ve got the day-to-day activity in science and research and can bring that to our students and involve them in it.”
Aubrey Schaeffer, a senior from Bothell who is advisor to students working with the University dairy herd, aspires to be a veterinarian. She has taken a number of McNamara’s courses.
“He knows nutrition,” she says. He forces students to problem-solve using the knowledge he gives us and what other professors have taught us over the years. He’s the one who puts together all the pieces of our education in the Animal Sciences department.”
In the non-ruminant nutrition course, Schaeffer identified characteristics of plants toxic to horses and matched them with symptoms horses displayed after eating the plants. The task was “pretty complex” she says, but now a valuable resource is available for horse owners to tap.
Classmate Erin Marinan of Everett created a dog vitamin advisory program, taking into consideration the animals’ size, sex, and age and 14 options for the use of Vitamins A, B, and D.
“Dr. McNamara wants you to take everything you know and figure out the solution on your own,” says Silverdale senior Barbara Zawlocki. “Sometimes it is frustrating, but it helps you develop your own critical thinking skills.”
Her project was devoted to weight management of horses.
As an undergrad and graduate student at the University of Illinois, McNamara had the good fortune to work in the laboratory of Professor Dale Bauman, an authority on nutrition. From Bauman, he learned much about the teaching methods he now uses in his own classes at WSU.
“He’s a great scientist, a great teacher,” he says of Bauman, now a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
McNamara’s best students today are better than ever, he says. They are getting more advanced science in high school. They are willing to work hard and try new things.
“The challenge is that most students don’t have a lot of experience. They don’t have to work like we did, or they didn’t grow up on a farm. It’s hard for them to put science into a practical context,” he says.
“That’s what I try to help them with.”