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Animal ‘ambassadors’ help educate students—and their teachers

‘Teaching with Animals’ class sharpens public speaking skills for students of all majors


Caitlin Winsness reached into her magic bag and gently revealed its contents to the students gathered around her. The room quieted. There were several “Oohs” and “Aahs” amid excited exhales.


“This is our beautiful friend Snowy; she is an albino corn snake,” said Winsness, a second-year University of Georgia student, as she supported the gentle, sinewy body of a light yellow snake. The students, all participants in the after-school program at Extra Special People in Watkinsville, watched as she explained how Snowy was different from other corn snakes.


Winsness and the three other students in her group are part of a class that does exactly what it’s called: “Teaching with Animals.” In it, students use a variety of animals to help inspire concepts for lesson plans. Throughout the semester they work with professor Nick Fuhrman to develop a lesson, then record some test runs in front of their classmates while they analyze and finesse their instruction.


It’s a no-judgment zone, and the students are there to support each other and learn from their mistakes. But the secret ingredient, said Fuhrman, isn’t in the education they are imparting—rather, the process is helping the students become better public speakers and educators. The animals are a key component.


“So much of this is overcoming public speaking anxiety, because the animals take the attention off of you and put it on them—and it makes it so much more conversational,” said Fuhrman, who has been teaching the class for eight years. “There’s a difference between presenting and teaching. So often in public speaking, we’re delivering information to an audience using notecards and a podium, and we’re not really engaging like most people would do when they interact with others.”


Teaching with animals connects science and environmental concepts, which is a key skill to learn for students who are majoring in agricultural education or pursuing an environmental education certificate through the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. But the larger skill set of public speaking is applicable to any major and can be used in almost any job after graduation, Fuhrman added. 


“For a lot of folks in (Warnell’s) parks, recreation and tourism management major, it’s an obvious skill set. But I think regardless of your major, these kinds of skills are huge—to be able to be comfortable with others,” said Fuhrman. “I see them go off and have jobs in nature centers, zoos, aquariums—but some students pursue careers having nothing to do with environmental education. But they learn these skills and I like to think they feel better about their ability to communicate.”


Pre-veterinary sciences student Varsha Ramachandra falls into that category. While the “Teaching with Animals” class isn’t part of her major, she took it because she felt it would teach her beneficial skills as she moved into her chosen profession.


“It’s not required, but I think learning to teach with animals should be part of the pre-vet curriculum, because as a vet you’re also teaching with animals,” she added. “So, I took it because I thought it would better me as a person.”


For their lesson, the group of four UGA students—Winsness, Ramachandra, Cora Wall and Allen Daniel­—have chosen two animals with unique differences. They talk about how the animals have their own special qualities that make them different, and they go through some basic facts about the animals: Snowy the albino corn snake and Sharon, a box turtle that lost a leg after a lawnmower accident. 


An iPad in the corner of the room records their presentation as they work with students at the ESP facility in Watkinsville. Some of the students have seen the animals before—Fuhrman and his classes have made hundreds of trips to ESP over the years—but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is excited to see Snowy and Sharon again.


“We chose a lesson we know the animals can help us with,” said Wall, who is majoring in agricultural education and plans to be an agricultural sciences teacher after graduation. She notes that the “animal ambassadors” that are joining them serve a very specific role. “We’re emphasizing these animals are in the wild and not necessarily handled—we’re handling them, but we don’t want that to be misconstrued with, if you see a snake in the wild you can pick it up. Animal ambassadors are helping us spread a message.”


As the group concludes their presentation and wraps up with a craft—gluing pieces of colorful tissue paper onto a paper turtle shell—the next steps will be to analyze their video, evaluate what worked (and what might not have gone so well), and continue to practice.


The final project requires the students to make a longer how-to volunteer training video explaining the class to future students. In this way, it synthesizes what they learned and creates a fun end-of-course competition among the groups, said Fuhrman.


It also provides one last look at how they’ve grown in their skills over the semester.


“It’s been so fun over the years to see students get comfortable in front of others and engage and find their personalities,” he said. “And coming to ESP, this is a no-judgment zone. And my students come here and the participants are so excited that they’re here—it’s a wonderful audience for that. Some of these participants have seen these animals many times, but every time they see them and Ranger Nick’s students, they’re excited.”

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