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Jason Niedermeyer '01, MAT'05Jason Niedermeyer '01, MAT'05

Niedermeyer models his teaching style on that of his Willamette professors by engaging his students in class discussions.Niedermeyer models his teaching style on that of his Willamette professors by engaging his students in class discussions.

Niedermeyer's students conduct scientific research in the classroom and in the field.Niedermeyer's students conduct scientific research in the classroom and in the field.

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Willamette grad introduces teens to scientific discovery

Dissecting a frog in high school biology? Jason Niedermeyer’s students would tell you that’s so old-fashioned.

In his animal behavior class at South Salem High School, students film the antagonistic actions of crayfish and use iPads to document the results while comparing them with published scientific literature. They form hypotheses about squirrel behaviors before heading into the field to observe the creatures, collect data and test their ideas.

In other words, they learn to be real scientists.

“Many students feel like science isn’t their thing, but they are completely capable of thinking like scientists,” says Niedermeyer ’01, MAT’05. “Everybody, no matter how old they are or how much experience they have with science, can make a discovery.”

Bringing research into the classroom

The act of discovery is something Niedermeyer grew to love as a biology undergraduate at Willamette, when he spent two summers examining squirrel behavior through the Science Collaborative Research Program.

When he became a teacher, he drew upon this experience to create an animal behavior course where students tackle their own research questions on everything from pill bugs to robins.

“I can give my students a simple definition of a concept, but having them actually experience and observe it allows them to discover new things both about the content and about what it’s like to conduct research,” he says.

Niedermeyer likes to develop his own lesson plans and classroom style rather than following a textbook. His innovative ideas have earned him several national grants and awards, including the Evolution Education Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers.

He attributes his style partly to his time as a Bearcat football player and an assistant coach. One of the other coaches advised him, “Coach your personality, and your players will follow you because they’ll know you’re being authentic.”

When he later enrolled in Willamette’s Graduate School of Education to earn his master of arts in teaching, he heard the same advice from his professors.

“They didn’t just say, ‘This is the best instructional strategy — you should copy this,’” he says. “They showed you different activities and gave you the opportunity to reflect on which ones worked, which didn’t, and how you could succeed in your classroom based on your subject matter and your personality.”

The act of discovery

South Salem High School is only about a mile away from Willamette — a proximity that has provided Niedermeyer with even more ways to engage his students.

He spent two summers researching and learning in the lab of Willamette’s animal behaviorist, David Craig, through a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust’s Partners in Science Program.

The two later collaborated to create Darwin Discovery Day, an event that brings local elementary, middle and high school students to Willamette to learn about science study and careers.

Held in conjunction with Willamette’s Student Scholarship Recognition Day — a day when undergraduates present their scholarly work to the campus community — Darwin Discovery Day allows the younger visitors to view the work of college students and also to present their own work to a university audience.

Said one high school student who presented a poster about her research: “It made me realize I knew more about science than I thought, and I felt more confident in myself than I ever had.” Another student commented: “It was amazing to see how much growth could happen for me between now and when I’m a senior in college.”

It just goes to show that the discoveries made by Niedermeyer’s students extend far beyond the science lab.