Building a foundation

Editor’s note: This video profile is part of a series about UGA faculty who were named Josiah Meigs Teaching Professors in 2017.

Students in John Maerz’s First-Year Odyssey seminar courses in animal behavior and herpetology quickly discover that learning is a “participatory sport” in his classroom.

Maerz has been teaching for more than a decade, and in that time, he realized the more memorable he can make a particular lesson, the more ingrained it will become in his students.

“Learning is just memory,” said Maerz, professor of vertebrate ecology in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “If you learn something briefly and don’t reinforce it, that memory will wither and die. But if we take that and we either practice it repetitively or make it highly memorable — so memorable that you remember that day you learned something because it was so out of the norm — then that memory is reinforced.”

It’s an atypical approach to teaching large lecture classes, but it’s earned Maerz high praise from students and colleagues alike.

“Whether you (are) searching for plastic lizards in Whitehall to learn about calculating population estimates, drawing anurans (tailless amphibians) in class to think about how form tells about function or writing your own key to turtles of Georgia, he never simply lets his students sit back and listen,” said Theresa Stratmann, a former student who is now pursuing her doctorate.

Maerz is the kind of professor who is immortalized in movies and television shows but rarely exists in the real world, Stratmann said. His classes are challenging for students, with some syllabi warning that his classes will require much out-of-classroom work and more writing than might typically be expected in a science course.

“Writing is such a fundamental skill; it’s a way of thinking through problems,” Maerz said. “Writing forces you to condense your ideas, line them up logically and defend them with clear evidence.”

Maerz’s end goal for his students isn’t just a beautifully polished paper but learning the process involved in researching, writing and revising one’s work.

“I never see my class as the end all, like you’re going to learn how to do X here,” he said. “What I’m going to do is give you a foundation, get you thinking about it and get you excited about it.”

Maerz is more than just a teacher for his students. He’s a mentor who helps them discover their passions and instills the confidence they need to achieve their goals.

“If you find something that feels really intuitive to you, really gets you excited and you seem to understand it more than your average bear would, then go farther with it,” Marez said. “Pursue it.”