Campus News

CAES faculty member uses animals to make classroom more engaging

Nick Fuhrman

UGA associate professor Nick Fuhrman teaches College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences students some pretty serious stuff—evaluation skills, data analysis, statistics. The self-proclaimed “motivational speaker” makes the topics interesting by employing wild animals as teaching assistants.

Fuhrman’s love of animals started when he was 7 years old and a wildlife ranger brought animals into his classroom. Fuhrman started shadowing “Ranger Bill” when he was 8 years old.

“I was definitely the youngest person to ‘work’ for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources,” he said. “I loved how he captivated people by using animals to teach.”

That concept stuck with Fuhrman through college and into graduate school. He even returned home for summers and breaks to teach wildlife classes. The light bulb turned on when Fuhrman was in graduate school at the University of Florida, and he began using snakes, owls and other birds of prey to teach college courses.

“My secret is that enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “I’m a naturally excited person, but when I handle animals I get even more excited.”

Fuhrman, who also hosts a segment on Georgia Farm Bureau’s Farm Monitor TV show under the name Ranger Nick, now uses his excitement, enthusiasm and animals to teach students.

“Data analysis and evaluation may not be exciting topics, but I use the animals as ambassadors to help get students excited and to get their attention. They’re topics they might not normally get that fired up about,” he said.

Fuhrman first used a great horned owl named Carlos from an Athens-area wildlife center.

“We really hit it off. I’d go and get him and bring him into class. I’ve done online classes with him sitting on my glove,” he said.

He compares the owl’s eating habits to data collecting.

“They use multiple data points to find their food. Then I talk about evaluation and how we need more than one source to evaluate our programs. This is what I call ‘ev-owl-uation,’ ” he said.

He uses his personal animal collection in class.

“I’ve got four turtles, a snake and a salamander,” he said. “I’m on the hunt for a western hognose snake. I like them because of their disposition—they are super, super friendly and they rarely bite. They are a wonderful species, very docile.”

In 2014, Fuhrman taught a new undergraduate course, Animals in Education, which he describes as a “public speaking class for students who likely won’t be behind a podium.”

In the course, CAES students used animals to teach local special education students affiliated with Extra Special People, a nonprofit organization that strives to enhance the lives of children with developmental disabilities.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool for them to take the animals over and teach the participants at Extra Special People in Watkinsville. The students would be receptive even if (the college students) mess up, so it’s a win-win, and my students would get a confidence boost,” Fuhrman said.

The venture worked out just as Fuhrman anticipated.

Fuhrman is still amazed to see students lose their nervousness just because they are holding a turtle while they give a talk or teach a lesson.

“I guess they feel like the attention is on the animal and not on them. And, you never know what’s going to happen when you’re holding an animal so (the students) have to learn to think on their feet,” he said.

Not all students are receptive to getting up close and personal with snakes or birds with talons. One student was terrified at the thought of touching a snake.

“But by the end of the semester, she was taking it out of the bag and using it to teach,” he said. “She really faced her fear.”

To reward good grades, Fuhrman uses rubber stamps.

“I use an owl stamp for ‘owl-standing’ and a turtle for ‘ex-shell-ent.’ You’d think the students would think I was nuts, but they really like it. Anyone who thinks stuff like this is just for second-graders, I can tell you different,” said Fuhrman, who started using the stamps in 2004 while student teaching in Florida.

He once forgot to put a stamp on a student’s paper.

“After I handed out my papers, a big football player came to my office. He said, ‘Nick, I didn’t get a stamp on mine.’ So I got out my owl stamp and handed it back, and he walked out just as proud as he could be,” he said.

To grow the environmental education program within the college’s agricultural leadership, education and communication department, Fuhrman currently is working on creating a Certificate in Environmental Education in collaboration with UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. The department is also developing an area of emphasis in environmental education under its agricultural education bachelor’s degree course of study.

Fuhrman is grateful his colleague Dennis Duncan encouraged him to become a teacher.

“I was planning on a career in wildlife, but he convinced me I could make more of a difference teaching than I could just doing outreach,” he said. “When I would speak to a large group of people (for a wildlife class), I never knew if they learned anything. Now I see students for 15 weeks and I can develop a relationship with them and make a difference in their lives. (In graduate school) when I was getting to know the students all by name and seeing them change and their writing and teaching ability improve, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”