Colbert’s style inspires faculty, students

Tomy Hillers

Ice voyages and mud adventures are all part of a normal year for Jim Colbert, associate professor of botany.

Colbert’s ability to stimulate teachers and students in classes such as Biology 201 and 202 has put him in the spotlight in the large lecture classroom Iowa State, his colleagues said.

David Oliver, professor and chairman of botany, said Colbert has an uncanny ability to keep students involved in his large lecture classes.

“Jim Colbert is not only ranked at the top in teacher evaluations, he has also earned the LAS [Liberal Arts and Sciences] Outstanding Teaching Award,” Oliver said. “[He] is one of the most innovative student-oriented instructors that I have ever had the privilege of working with.”

Oliver said Colbert was selected as a fellow in the Center for Teaching Excellence, an ISU program designed to stimulate new teaching genres through repeated faculty-to-faculty interaction.

“He takes his style of instructing and applies it to the broad format of classes at Iowa State,” Oliver said, adding that this gives other instructors a new perspective on large lecture instruction. “Most students just flat out enjoy the way that he instructs.”

Colbert said his different approach to classroom teaching began because he wanted to build student interest in his biology classes. He said he began experimenting with his Biology 201 class a few years ago.

“I really wanted to prompt students to do more than just sit in their desks and take notes,” he said. “I wasn’t so concerned about whether or not they retained all of the tedious terminology, rather that they became interested in the material.”

Colbert said some of the changes were especially helpful for 201 students studying genetics and evolution because they can be hard concepts to pick up.

“I began to break the class up into small groups to let them discuss concepts,” he said. “Then I started letting them take the quizzes in groups.”

Colbert said he also opened a Web site to give students access to web links and the class notes.

“With the Web site in operation, it is easier for students who miss a class to stay on top of things,” he said.

Colbert said one of his newest projects is a class called Polar Studies 322. “Students will not only learn from a text, they will also get firsthand experience at the end of the course,” he said. “We will be taking an expedition to a frozen lake here in Iowa, where we will conduct studies all day and then set up camp for a night in the elements.”

Another project Colbert uses to help diversify his class is a service learning project, known as the Skunk River Navy.

“Every fall the Skunk River Navy forms small groups of 15 to 20 students and proceeds to the Skunk River,” he said. “We are typically cleaning the river and having a great time doing it. We also check water quality and mussel population and do bank erosion prevention.”

Colbert said he is working to organize North American learning trips to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota.

“We in the department are working on a project in which the supplies would be delivered by dog sled, and the students would ski in and out of the camp area,” he said.