Michael Tessler ’09 taught a course over the summer at Sterling College on spore-bearing plants and mosses (Common Voice, Spring-Summer ’13). Here he recounts his experience.

Over the course of my first year as a Sterling student, I quickly left behind the distaste for academics that my public education had left me with. After my second year, I decided that I never wanted to leave academia. Faculty member David Gilligan, in particular, taught several classes that were life changing for me. David often had a “take-home message” at the end of lectures, but my “take-home message” from his courses was always something along the lines of, “chasing frogs is the best!”

I don’t think that I actually caught any frogs in David’s classes, but the feeling in his courses always awoke the 5-year-old in me that spent so much time catching frogs and minnows. I worked hard in my classes and learned a tremendous amount about ecology, evolution, and natural history. Years later, after an M.Sc., a few grants, my second publication submitted, and the start of a Ph.D. program, I am still following that “take-home message.”

When I was invited back to Sterling to teach a course on mosses and ferns this past summer, I was thrilled; not only because Sterling holds such a special place in my heart, but also because I would have a chance to give back to the community that most strongly shaped my current trajectory. But coming close to achieving the quality of the courses I took at Sterling would be a real challenge, especially since I needed to get students, some new to natural history who had yet to hear the “take-home message,” excited about odd, difficult to identify plants that few people ever think twice about.

I worked hard to prepare field trips and lectures that were meant to engage, challenge, and be fun. Not only did we cover the difficult identifications and peculiar biology of spore bearing plants, but we also addressed a number of difficult topics related to evolution. The hard work seems to have paid off: by the end of the course a number of students actually confessed to enjoying the difficult work of moss identification using microscopes and pondering topics such as phylogenetics, which we used to understand classification and the relationships between organisms. I know that I gained a lot from this course and, if I’m lucky, Sterling might let me brainwash a few more Sterling students. •

Filed Under: Alumni Ecology