December 07 2015
“This is the world of Google. If somebody wants to know how blood works or what’s in hemoglobin, you can go and look it up. It’s almost become secondary now that that info is there for everyone. They need to learn to think critically, follow the scientific method, and understand what all that means. I hope by the time they graduate, they’ve picked that up.”
Since becoming a member of the Elmira College faculty in 2006, Dan Kjar has brought a highly individualized, yet holistic approach to teaching the sciences. Thanks to his experience in both small state schools and large research institutions, he is able to bring the best of both worlds to his students. Dan’s courses prepare students for careers in the sciences through immersive study, as evidenced by his frequent research trips to Hawaii and the Bahamas. Ants have been a major area of interest for Dan ever since he was given a grant to study them by the National Park Service in the early 2000s. From exotic spots like the Bahamas to locations like Jerusalem Hill right in the College’s back yard, ants have proven to be fertile ground for Dan’s genetic and environmental research.
A subscriber to the “teach a man to fish” school of thought, Dan focuses on imparting the fundamentals of the scientific method rather than falling into the trap of getting consumed by the details of specific content, as some science courses tend to do. After taking his course, students are able not only to formulate and test hypotheses, but also to think and write critically about what their findings mean on a larger scale. As he puts it: “This is the world of Google. If somebody wants to know how blood works or what’s in hemoglobin, you can go and look it up. It’s almost become secondary now that that info is there for everyone. They need to learn to think critically, follow the scientific method, and understand what all that means. I hope by the time they graduate, they’ve picked that up.”
Dan has always believed strongly that a well-rounded, liberal arts education helps to develop these critical thinking skills, especially after serving as chair of general education for a number of years. He encourages even his students most intent on the hard sciences to pursue other interests, especially if these include learning to write clearly and concisely. He states: “We have a lot of students who double major and oftentimes I ask a science student, ‘Why don’t you become an art major?’ and vice versa.” This sort of flexibility comes handy in any professional setting.
That being said, Dan’s students are no strangers to state-of-the-art lab equipment, specialized research techniques, or scholarly fieldwork. In an attempt to determine the cause of the erratic behavior of a species of evasive ant in the Bahamas called the “Crazy Ant,” his students have been using gene sequencers and gas spectrometers to assemble DNA signatures. They’ve also been monitoring interactions among colonies and gathering behavioral data, which will be presented at a conference in Hawaii over the summer.
Sometimes, his students end up taking his research farther than he could himself. As he tells it, “I took students to the Bahamas last year and a student named Zachory Park ’17 was just really quantitatively with it. I knew he had the ability to do this math and I said, ‘Zach, how would you like to have a publication?’ I would never be able to do the math, so I handed it off to Zach. He figured it out on his own, rewrote the entire paper, and sent it in last week.” This is an example of what brought Dan to Elmira College in the first place: the ability to collaborate one-on-one with his students.