Robert Warren, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, stresses to his students that they are most likely to succeed in life—both personally and professionally—if they are able to think critically and objectively apply their knowledge.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned a B.S. in zoology from Oklahoma State University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in wildlife biology and wildlife management from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. My current position at UGA allows me to spend half of my time on instruction and the other half on research. I teach several undergraduate courses that are required by either the core curriculum within the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources or the fisheries and wildlife major of the B.S.F.R. degree. I advise and mentor numerous undergraduate students, especially in regards to the academic requirements for them to become a Certified Wildlife Biologist. I also serve as principal or co-principal investigator on several externally funded research projects, predominantly with wild mammals and birds. All of my research efforts are conducted collaboratively with M.S. or Ph.D. candidates, for whom I serve as major or co-major professor.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I was fortunate to obtain a faculty position at Texas Tech University immediately after completing my Ph.D. in 1979. However, my family and I had a desire to return to the Southeast. So, I applied for and obtained a position on the faculty at UGA in 1983. It’s been a pleasure for me to remain as a member of the wildlife faculty within the Warnell School ever since.
What are your favorite courses and why?
That’s a difficult question because I enjoy all of the courses that I teach. However, I think I obtain the most satisfaction from teaching our capstone course, FANR 4500 “Senior Project in Forestry and Natural Resources Management.” Our students usually take this course in their final semester. It requires them to work in a team of two to three students and apply what they have learned during their undergraduate program as they work on an actual project. As an educator, I find this course so satisfying because the students learn “real-world” skills that will help them succeed in their professional careers. Each student team’s project is uniquely different. Whether they work with a private landowner who wishes to manage their natural resources or work with an agency/organization to develop an effective environmental education program, this course requires our students to think critically as they quantitatively evaluate various alternatives to achieve the objectives of their “client.” In addition, the student teams must write a comprehensive management plan and give an oral presentation that requires them to describe their project and defend their recommendations. By the end of the semester, the students really “get it” (i.e., they have learned how to integrate their knowledge of natural resources management and apply problem-solving skills in evaluating alternatives to formulate recommendations as required in the decision-making process).
What interests you about your field?
While growing up, I always enjoyed the out-of-doors. Hence, it was inevitable that I would become interested in the natural resources management discipline because of its applied, field-oriented nature. Then, while working as a graduate student on my dissertation research, I had the opportunity to serve as a graduate teaching assistant. This experience allowed me to realize how much I enjoyed teaching and helped me decide to pursue a career as an educator in wildlife ecology and management. I also find the natural resources field to be interesting and challenging because of the “human dimension” of the profession. We manage our natural resources for society (i.e., different stakeholders). Whereas most people are interested in conserving our natural resources and maintaining environmental quality, they often have divergent attitudes, values and beliefs as to how those objectives should be accomplished. As an educator, I actually find the challenge of resolving conflicts, evaluating trade-offs and trying to reach a consensus or resolution to be personally and professionally rewarding. As with many things in life, there is never a single, easy, universally accepted answer to most problems; such is truly the case in the natural resources management profession.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
The opportunities afforded to me in my position at UGA have enabled me to achieve a number of significant professional accomplishments. Without doubt, the most important highlight of my career as a faculty member at UGA occurred in 2000 when I had the honor of being selected to receive the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professorship. My two other highest honors came from my international-level professional society, The Wildlife Society—first when I was elected to serve as TWS president during 2002-2003 and then when I was selected to receive the TWS Excellence in Wildlife Education Award in 2013.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I frequently incorporate my own personal career experiences and results from my research into my teaching because it helps students learn the relevance of course material and propels classroom discussion. My work as a major professor directing graduate student research provides a significant benefit to my instructional program. I generate the highest level of interest on the part of my undergraduate students when I discuss experiences from the research projects being conducted by my graduate students. By bringing my personal experiences into my classroom lectures, I’m able to help undergraduate students actually see how the concepts and material being presented in the course are directly applicable to their future careers.
My teaching and mentoring of graduate students also greatly benefits my research. I stress to all of my graduate students that we work together on their research projects. I challenge them to develop their own ideas and add their own dimension to their thesis or dissertation research. My graduate students and I frequently have rather lengthy, thought-provoking discussions related to their research projects. This open dialogue not only helps me in mentoring these students, but it helps to bring creative input to my research projects. Thus, my research program benefits greatly from my close working relationship with my graduate students.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
First, I want them to understand the concepts taught in my courses and how to apply them to current wildlife conservation issues. I like to present opposing views to controversial topics in wildlife conservation, which often are the result of conflicting objectives or divergent personal attitudes and values. Students must learn to objectively examine and address these controversial issues in natural resources management or they may likely fail in their efforts to resolve these conflicts, which they are certain to encounter in their careers.
Second, I want students to learn how to be effective communicators. In all of my classes, I require students to write two papers that review either current scientific journal articles or current news articles dealing with natural resources conservation and management. As part of these written assignments, the students must describe their opinion of the article and write a critique. I then edit these student papers for proper grammar and professional writing style. Thus, these written assignments require the students to think critically about the wildlife-related articles they have chosen, apply the material they have learned from my classes, and help improve their written communication skills.
Describe your ideal student.
First, my ideal student would be someone who is willing to go beyond the minimum requirements of the curriculum necessary to obtain their degree. Successfully completing a degree at UGA is, in itself, a significant accomplishment. However, those students who also devote extra time to professionally relevant extracurricular activities are the ones who are most likely to succeed in their careers. When advising and mentoring students, I always stress the importance of their involvement in student organizations, membership in professional societies and participation in internships as a means of improving their educational experience and their future employability.
Second, the ideal student should be able to think critically and be receptive to new ideas. There’s an old saying, “The more you learn, the more you know that you don’t know”! I often use this phrase to initiate a discussion during the first day of my class about the differences between completing a degree and obtaining an education. I stress to the students that they should expect the faculty at UGA to provide them with an education that enables them to look at all aspects of life with an open-minded perspective, the ability to see all sides of every issue and the objectivity to evaluate the validity of sources of data or evidence. Often in life, there’s not an absolutely right or wrong answer to a problem, issue or situation. I stress to my students that they are most likely to succeed in life personally and professionally if they are able to objectively apply their knowledge.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
I honestly enjoy going into the Miller Learning Center. In my opinion, this building is the very “heart” of student learning on campus. I usually have an immense feeling of pride when I walk into the MLC and see it “alive” with all of the students rushing to or from classes, or overhear student discussions near the coffee shop, etc. Not only is it the most innovative and technologically advanced place on campus to teach, but the expansive atrium and ornate marble within the MLC actually convey a sense of the magnificence and importance of the academic and scholarly work that occurs within the building. The MLC is truly the most vibrant place on campus, and the youthful excitement and enthusiasm within it are contagiously inspirational!
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
In my spare time, I like to read and learn about the history of the Civil War and World War II. I especially enjoy spending time with my family and traveling. My wife and I like visiting various parts of the country and world, when possible, and learning about their history and culture. We often visit state/national parks, forests, battlefield parks, etc. Our three children have all moved away from home, so our travel often is associated with visits to see them and our two grandchildren.
Community/civic involvement includes….
My wife and I actively support several nonprofit organizations dealing with environmental and conservation issues. We also participate in and promote recycling in the Athens-Clarke County area. We have volunteered at the Athens Area Homeless Shelter. I am a frequent donor in Red Cross blood drives.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
Without doubt, “A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There” by Aldo Leopold. I’ve read this book three times in my life and it’s such a joy to read it again and again. Of course, I use some of Leopold’s essays in the classes that I teach, but Leopold’s book is far more than a reference book for natural resources management professionals. He had such an inspirational and insightful way of writing about the natural world that his book has become a classic literary work for all to enjoy.
Proudest moment at UGA?
The proudest moments that I have at UGA occur each year when I attend the Warnell School’s Annual Spring Awards Banquet. I have attended this event every year since 1983 and each time I have a tremendous sense of pride when I see our students recognized and rewarded for their academic excellence. The generosity of the alumni and friends of the Warnell School during the past 100 years has enabled us to accumulate a sufficient endowment that allows us to provide about 40 different awards and scholarships totaling in excess of $100,000 each year to our students who have excelled in their undergraduate and graduate work. It may be somewhat of a paternal instinct, but I have a deeply emotional sense of pride when I see our students recognized at this annual event.
Originally published Sept. 28, 2014