How cool would it be if instead of learning about exotic animals like Patagonian maras (large rodents that resemble rabbits) and bearded dragons from textbooks, you could do it by touching, feeling and maybe even breeding them? That is how the students fortunate enough to be taught by Michael Bechtel at Saydel High School in Des Moines, Iowa, experienced biology for many years.
Bechtel who grew up on a farm in Waukon says his obsession with animals began with goats. However when he decided to start his collection he went for the more unusual ones like a pet ball python and dove, which may sound like an odd combination to some, but made perfect sense to the animal lover.
Over the years, he has added so many more snakes and reptiles that his collection is too large to even count. He also has numerous rats, mice, hamsters, tortoises, Australian Tree and Pacman frogs, as well as, a hedgehog. And if that is not enough he even has hundreds of cockroaches, safely tucked away in a large cage of course.
Here's the best part though - While he had a few of these animals when he joined Saydel High School, the rest were accumulated during his tenure there, largely because his students enjoyed interacting with the animals so much, that they kept pushing him to add more and even helped him breed some of the more rare species. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, Bechtel decided to incorporate the animals into his classroom curriculum.
Their first breeding experiment began with a Red-Tail Boa. When the professor discovered the snake coiled around 27 babies one fine morning, he quickly summoned his students via the school's intercom asking them to come assist in the birthing process, which involved cutting the baby snakes' umbilical cords and weighing them. Not surprisingly, they were hooked and Bechtel could not be happier.
As word of this unusual classroom education spread, he received several requests from fellow teachers asking if they could buy some of his animals for their classrooms. While Bechtel was not ready to sell his pets, he was perfectly happy to 'loan' them for an entire year. Not only that, he also helped set up the animal in the classroom and even, trained the teacher on how to care for it. In the eight years he taught at Saydel, he placed animals in more than 15 districts and 100 classrooms.
In order to ensure that his pets were being well-taken care of and continue the education process, he made it a rule to assign a couple of his students to check on the loaned animals every other month and also, give the kids in the classroom a short presentation about them.
Unfortunately for Saydel High School, Mr. Bechtel recently decided to leave and join his alma mater, Wartburg College as Associate Professor of Science. The good news is that Bechtel is still willing to share his animals with all Iowa teachers, because as he succinctly puts it, 'naturalistic learning just wraps kids in' - So if you happen to live in the Corn State, be sure to persuade your teacher to adopt one of Bechtel's pets by simply contacting the biology department of Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Resources: infor.warturg.edu, wcfcourier.com.