Wednesday, January 25, 2012

5 year olds, 6 classes of them, and polar bears...oh my!

My final semester at Finger Lakes Community College began this past Monday, and I've been running ever since! I'm taking fewer credits than I ever have (14) before, but I've loaded myself with other responsibilities and extracurricular activities that are quickly eating up my "free time". I finally found some time this evening to write a new posting :)

Last semester, one of my professors, John, told me about a presentation he was going to be giving today. Without even knowing the topic or audience, I pleaded an invitation out of him...and he graciously relented, what a guy! John is one of my favorite professors at FLCC (and I'm not brown-nosing here, he will not be assigning any grades to me this semester!), for several reasons. The foremost is probably his passion for teaching, for wildlife, and combining the two. I love being presented to by someone who is knowledgeable, relateable, passionate, funny, engaging, etc etc etc...I could go on. So my reason for shadowing Dr. Van Niel today was to pick up some tips on presenting and commanding an audience's attention.

The audience? Six classes of kindergarten students! Not what I was expecting, because John is a local wildlife expert and has contacts and professional relationships with all types of people, groups, organizations... I wasn't expecting little ones. But, after watching today, I've decided that perhaps the littlest ones are the hardest age groups to present to! You've got to keep it moving, keep it light, keep it interesting, and they will TELL you if it's lacking in any of those areas. And the topic, as I'm sure you guessed from the title: polar bears!

We met this morning at the elementary school in Seneca Falls, NY that his daughter attended when she was younger. He started giving this presentation when she was in kindergarten, and has done it every year since. The kindergartners, all six classes of them, have been studying arctic animals, and John's polar bear presentation fit in well.

Having had John for many classes, and he teaches many sections of classes, I have heard him present often. What I admire is his "script" that he gets down pat. And that's not to say that it's stagnant or boring at ALL! Just structure, order, ((some of the same hilarious jokes...)), information...nothing left out, nothing forgotten. It's enviable. I'm coming into a part of my life where I'm getting to participate in some cool stuff, like undergraduate research, and then I get to talk about it! It's daunting to present in front of your peers and the scientific community, but...I think I'm getting the hang of it.

ANYWAY! I have a few pictures, unfortunately to protect the privacy of the kids, I can't post any pictures of them enjoying the presentation. BUT they were damn cute and interested.

So John brought three guests with him: Me, a polar bear skull, and a polar bear skin rug.

John introducing me and our other guests :)

Unveiling one of the guests: a polar bear skull! I'll tell the story of my college's acquisition of it below...

John showing the students the polar bear's eye sockets.

And finally the hit of the show: the polar bear rug! John unrolled this on the floor, had all the kids take their shoes off and be "bear scientists" and "investigate" the bear. Some of the kids had their fingers up it's nose, were rolling all over it, poking it's eyes, and almost climbing on John with excitement. It's refreshing and affirming me to see the younger generations show excitement for something I would've been excited as a kindergartner, and still am as a college student.

All of the pictures of the rug unrolled had kids covering it, so I did a quick internet search and found this image from which is a really cool site for purchasing skins, furs, clothing, and mounts. Check it out if you have time. Anyway, that picture above is a fair representation of the bear we had today, although ours may have been a little worse for the wear and smelled like mothballs :) proof of good educational use! In the last presentation was wrapping up, one little boy piped up and said "Umm, Mr. Van Niel? His toe fell off..." and in his hand, this boy had a polar bear claw! It was too cute!

Here are some better pictures of the skull. If the color seems off, I'm sorry- tried to tweak the contrast to pick out the definition a little bit.

So, here's the story of the skull:

Years ago, a man from a neighboring town went on a trip to Alaska. While he was hiking, he came across a long-dead polar bear. The bones were aged and weathered, but he collected the skull and brought it home to NY. At some point, he donated it to the conservation department at the school and it is now used as an educational tool. I should mention that this all happened before it was illegal to take/transport endangered species. The college has special educational permits which allow them to have things like this to teach. So, now we have this wicked cool skull and polar bear rug (actually we have two of them, the other is HUGE and covers a wall at the Muller Field Station- that's another cool story...)! The skull isn't in the best condition, missing teeth, it's dry and cracked...but impressive. The kids love sticking their little fingers in it's brain case, nasal passages, eye sockets, touching the only HUGE canine left, and feeling the weight of it. What I am impressed by is the crazy ridge of a sagittal crest! In the top picture of the skulls you can see it poking up on top. These meat-eaters that rely on their teeth for catching and dividing up their prey have amazing jaw pressure and strength. I remember being impressed with the Virginia opossum, and the river otter skulls too in my Fish & Wildlife class that I happened to take with John. That crest is what all the muscle attaches to. I would love to see a skinned animal who happens to have a larger sagittal crest, but with all the ligaments and musculature still attached. Perhaps in my future!

Thank you to Miss Mead, Mrs. Olschewske, and John for the pictures!

And thanks JVN for a fun and REaffirming morning :)

And visit John's blog at: Backyard Beasts


  1. Very cool! I bet that the kids adored the class!

    I love finding skulls in the forest and bringing some of them home. The kids who visit us love checking them out... just like you said, sticking fingers into eye sockets etc!

  2. Great piece of writing, Alyssa, and John sounds like an incredibly engaging teacher!
    Aunt Suzanne

    1. I wore the wildlife necklace yesterday, and a little boy noticed it and picked it up looking at all the animals :)

  3. Great post and it sounds like you have a great mentor. I am pleased to hear about the kids being so excited with the presentation, wish I was there too. I have a bear skull from the one and only I've ever harvested and it is impressive. I know what you're talking about referring to the sagittal crest.

    1. Thanks Terry! I would LOVE to own a black bear skull (my favorite mammal!) but I'm not a hunter, and I'm too much of an animal lover to get one myself. I think I'll start asking around at taxidermists!

  4. It is great that you put in the "it was illegal to take/transport endangered species."

    1. Thanks, Bob! Crossing my i's and dotting my t's! :)

  5. I would have enjoyed seeing those little tykes investigating that polar bear rung. Very cool.

    Thanks for sharing.


Thank you for reading and wishing to leave a comment! Unfortunately, due to a high number of spam comments being left under the "Anonymous" heading, I had to disable that feature. You may still leave a comment with a Gmail account, or under the OpenID option! I welcome comments, suggestions, stories, and tall tales!