Yesterday evening at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, during our final STEM Institute follow-up session of the year, I had the privilege of chatting with one of ten 2016 Golden Apple Award winners, a 2009 Presidential Award Winner (presented by President Obama), the President Elect of the Illinois Science Teachers Association, and a guy who built a 300 square foot aviary on the back of his house. They all happen to be one and the same person, Jason Crean.
Reading about Jason in preparation for this conversation, I was struck by the lifelong passion he’s had for living things and the impact he’s had on his students. By way of introduction, I found the following passage on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website, on the occasion of Crean winning an award for his genetics curriculum, Who’s Your Daddy?
“Growing up, I really wanted to become a veterinarian,” Crean said, “but the further through my education I went, the more I wanted to share my love of biology with others. Now that I have taught biology for about 15 years, I have the best of both worlds.”
Former student Allison Kihn has fond memories of the XY-ZOO and the school zoology club founded by Crean. As a second year vet student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she says she is “exactly where I want to be in life right now,” thanks in part to Crean’s encouragement.
“My time in the lab was truly treasured, and really gave me a grasp on genetics that has really helped me in the classroom and laboratory setting,” Kihn said. “I pretty much can thank Mr. Crean for single handedly helping me achieve my dream career.”
And so I asked …
What experiences from your childhood or youth set you down the path you’re on … being a science teacher, being an aviculturist and zoologist, being a writer.
I played outside ALL THE TIME. From morning until night, I was outside exploring: climbing trees, laying in the grass, digging in the soil. When kids play outside, they can’t help but encounter organisms and these experiences led to my interest in science. My parents allowed me to get a cockatiel as a kid and this sparked my lifelong interest in birds. I now have many different species as part of my live animal education program that serve the same purpose as that first bird: allowing kids to make connections with living animals which sparks not only an interest in science, but compassion towards nature as well.
What is one lesson or activity you’ve designed of which you’re especially proud?
I have worked with Dr. Jean Dubach, wildlife geneticist, for several years and I have authored curricular activities that make use of the fascinating work she does in her lab. We have published these activities free for teachers. One of the activities that best shows my transformation as an educator is the Lion Investigation (Who’s Your Daddy?, an AAAS award winning lesson). The traditional lab activity, which is handed to students in its entirety, as well as the updated version, which allows students to work with individual data sets one at a time and in sequence, are both available. I have found the “controlled release” of data allows students to become further immersed in the driving questions and allows them to alter their hypotheses as new data becomes available.
How do you get your best ideas for new lessons?
I always start with an engaging phenomenon which usually begins as an interesting story. If the story is engaging, it’s going to hook more students from the onset. If they’re interested, they’re more likely to answer those driving questions. This could be a human interest story I see on the news, a particularly engaging article I read, or something I actually encounter. As a zoo consultant, I have had the opportunity to interact with some fascinating animals and their stories can lead to some engaging phenomenon for the classroom. The animal nutrition lab came out of an idea I had while feeding a rhinoceros by hand!
In working with students, what is your primary focus? What are your aspirations for them?
I want my students to have the skills to make sense of the natural world. I want them to be able to reason through data and make sense of it. I want them to be able to investigate problems and come up with viable solutions. I want them to be informed citizens and make good choices. These goals can lead them to pursue careers in science or, at the very least, act as a responsible citizen living on our planet.
What advice do you have for beginning science teachers?
Tell stories. Your life as a teacher will be richer and more meaningful if you can tell your students stories. They will be more easily drawn in and, at the same time, you’re providing the context for the idea you are presenting. Students have trouble learning concepts when isolated and only learning the ‘what.’ But when you tell the stories, the context provides them more of the why. Narrative learning has made my life as a teacher and scientist so exciting and that definitely rubs off on my kids.
Jason Crean received his B. S. in Biology (1996) and his master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction (2001), both from St. Xavier University. He also has an M.S. in Biology and a graduate certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Science from Western Illinois University. He is certified in high school biology, chemistry, zoology, and other topics. He is a biology teacher at Lyons Township High School in La Grange and does research/service work for the Brookfield Zoo Conservation Biology Department’s Genetics Lab. In addition to the award mentioned above, he won the National Association of Biology Teachers’ 2009 Ecology/Environmental Science Teaching Award and the 2009 Drug, Chemical and Associated Technologies Association “Making a Difference” Award sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association among others.
To connect with more of Jason’s work, check out Beaks Birdhouse to learn about avian nutrition and various kinds of hand-reared softbills, the Illinois Science Teachers Association, to join with other science educators to share knowledge about science and teaching, and see his list of accomplishments and publications in his online resume. There’s lots to explore!
Given the enormous impact that playing outside had on shaping Crean’s lifelong passion for living things, I’d like to recommend a favorite book of mine which advocates that children have more opportunities to do just that, Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.