Biology Sends Cadets out of the Classroom

Brandon Campbell '20 and Christian Vaccaro '19 talk to 5th graders about ocean plastic.
Brandon Campbell ’20 and Christian Vaccaro ’19 speak to Coleene Cosgriff’s 5th grade class at Central Elementary about ocean plastic waste Dec. 3.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 25, 2019—During the fall semester, Maj. Mary Beth Manjerovic, assistant professor of biology, gave the cadets in her conservation biology class a new challenge: independent projects dealing with resource conservation.

Cadet projects consisted of studies on post and in the community, including an analysis of water usage by the toilets in barracks, with an eye towards possibly replacing them with smart toilets; helping Boxerwood, a local nature preserve, deal with nutrient runoff from a nearby golf course; installing duck boxes and restoring habitat in wetland areas; and preventing trash from accumulating on post.

Two cadets, Christian Vaccaro ’19 and Brandon Campbell ’20, took the assignment as a chance to do some teaching themselves by giving a presentation on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans to a fifth grade class at Central Elementary School.

Vaccaro and Campbell, both biology majors, kicked off their presentation with a slide showing two people rowing through what looked like an endless sea of garbage. They then shared some facts about what’s become known as the Great Pacific garbage patch, a concentration of trash between California and Hawaii as large as the state of Texas.

Immediately, the children jumped in to talk about solutions, such as capturing the floating debris in nets.

Mary Beth Manjerovic and Janice Friend discuss possible changes to the biology curriculum.
Maj. Mary Beth Manjerovic and Dr. Janice Friend discuss possible changes to the biology curriculum.—VMI Photo by Mary Price.

The cadets then led the elementary school students in talking about the responsible use of plastics via recycling and the need to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics as much as possible. All too soon, though, the time was up.

“I was impressed with how knowledgeable the kids were already about ocean pollution,” said Campbell. “I was very happy with how engaged they were with us.”

Vaccaro agreed, saying, “They came out hot, firing with ideas, all sorts of different solutions and stuff like that. We barely made it through the PowerPoint by the time the time was up.”

The two also learned that while it’s a good idea to go in with a plan, it’s just as important that the plan be flexible.

The cadets had originally thought of dividing the children into teams to brainstorm solutions for ocean pollution, but then found no need to do that as students were raising their hands to be called on regularly.

“It was more effective that we let it happen naturally,” said Vaccaro. “Just being there and having the stuff up there on the screen was enough to get them to participate.”

Manjerovic’s approach to the course allowed cadets to engage in a topic that interested them.

“This way they could pick something they wanted to work on, so they were more engaged and interested in the project,” she commented. “Conservation is a very applied science.”

Mason Briggs '20 installs a duck box for habitat restoration.
Mason Briggs '20 installs a duck box during Thanksgiving Furlough.—Photo courtesy of Hannah Grace Harris.

This was the first year that Manjerovic, who’s in her second year teaching at VMI, had assigned an independent project to her conservation biology cadets, and she’s helping to make an impact on the department as a whole through revamping 100-level biology courses.

In an effort to boost non-science major cadets’ understanding of the science topics they’ll likely encounter in real life, Manjerovic, along with Dr. Janice Friend, adjunct instructor, have teamed up to write a Jackson-Hope Fund grant proposal, “Science for Citizens.”

If received, the funds would be used to purchase laboratory modules for Biology 101 and 102, core curriculum classes that are often taken by 4th Class cadets seeking to fulfill distribution requirements. The classroom lecture portions of those courses will be restructured regardless of whether grant funds are received.

“We’re not changing the curriculum at all,” said Manjerovic. “What we’re hoping to do is change the delivery of the material. The curriculum is going to stay the same, but we’re going to tailor it more to non-biology majors.”

It’s all part of an effort to move the teaching of biology away from dry and dusty factual knowledge to real-life applicability.

“Instead of learning all of these facts, and thinking, ‘I have to memorize these terms for a test,’ they’re learning how it’s applied and to think like a scientist and evaluate things past our class,” said Manjerovic.

-Mary Price



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