FHSU's Thomasson recognized for high-tech teaching, high-touch research
03/12/2002

HAYS, KS -- February was an exciting month for Dr. Joe Thomasson, professor of biological sciences at Fort Hays State University, as he received national and international recognition -- some of it expected, some of it not -- for his scholastic endeavors.

Thomasson's article, "Using Digital Imaging in Classroom and Outdoor Activities," was published in the February 2002 issue of The American Biology Teacher, a magazine focusing on biology in all levels of education. The article describes ways he's integrated digital photography into his laboratory and field work and recommends equipment for other teachers who would like to incorporate this technology into their classrooms.

"I was so excited to get this information out to all levels," Thomasson said. "I see a lot of applications [Digital photography] is a paradigm that allows you to leap way ahead in getting information to students."

Thomasson praises digital photography as a quick, easy and cost-effective manner of creating images which can then be disseminated to students to aid in the learning process.

"It's unbelievable how easy to do and how versatile it is," he said. "It allows you to very quickly image things in the classroom and the field which can be used to enhance the educational experience and reinforce what students have learned."

Using a Nikon Coolpix 950 digital camera and a special microscope adapter, Thomasson is able to take photographs of students' slide preparations during class and project them onto a screen in the front of the classroom for all students to see.

He credits Dr. Richard Packauskas, associate professor of biological sciences, with introducing him to the microscope adapter and also encouraging him to explore ways to use the camera in the field.

Thomasson and Packauskas team-teach an aquatic biology class, and they take the same Nikon camera on field trips to document student observations. All the equipment necessary, including the camera, tripod, extra batteries and digital storage card, fits into a black bag approximately as big as a lunch box which can be easily carried over the shoulder.

When he returns to campus, Thomasson downloads the images to his computer, prints them on his color inkjet printer and laminates them; he is then able to take the same images -- now in a virtually indestructible form -- back into the field for purposes of comparison.

Thomasson also posts digital images taken during class on his Web site and occasionally even e-mails them to students -- all on the same day.

"One of the things that will revolutionize what [teachers] do is digital imagery," he said. "It's a combination of creating something that will help learning and teaching and being able to preserve it quickly."

Even accounting for the cost of lamination and color printing, Thomasson figures that the cost of digital photography is far less than the traditional film method, since only the best pictures need to be printed.

"I've taken more than 10,000 digital images, and probably 5,000-6,000 in the last two years," he said. "With digital imaging, you can afford to do that."

Another advantage of digital photography is the ability to preview a photographic image seconds after it is taken, allowing the photographer to retake the image if it is of poor quality.

"With film, you never knew if you had a good picture until you developed it," Thomasson said.

Thomasson's excitement about digital technology not only inspired him to write the article for The American Biology Teacher; he is also planning on teaching a class this summer aimed at educating teachers in the use of digital photography.

"I thought, 'There's a lot of teachers out there who could use this,' " he said. "A lot of times people are scared of technology, but I think this is the kind of thing anyone can learn in a short time."

The class, "Topics in Biology: Digital Camera Photography -- Basic Theory and Application," will be taught for graduate and undergraduate credit as a two-day workshop on June 5 and 6. It is designed primarily for teachers as an introduction to digital equipment and methods.

Although digital imaging is still a fairly new technology, Thomasson said he foresees it quickly becoming an integral part of the classroom experience.

"Once people see the ease with which they can do this, I think we'll see more and more digital cameras being sold," he said.

Thomasson has made it his goal to implement the "best part of technology" into the classroom throughout his teaching career at FHSU -- he introduced the first microcomputer to the biology department back in 1983. About five years ago, he began experimenting with digital imaging as a way to streamline the learning process.

"Since we're about teaching and about high-tech at Fort Hays, I wanted to try and combine the two in the undergraduate classroom," he said. "Once you realize the potential, it's literally a whole new way to teach."

Thomasson's dedication as a teacher is evident in every aspect of his work, and he fosters a close relationship with students which frequently extends beyond graduation. This contact paid off later in February, when a former student surprised him with news of some international recognition he'd received in a London book. The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass, written by Graham Harvey and published in 2001, describes Thomasson's research at the Minium Fossil Dig Site in Graham County.

Minium is a Miocene site rich in exceptionally well-preserved fossilized grasses. Because the cell structures of many of the leaves are still intact at Minium, it provides insight into the photosynthetic processes of these prehistoric grasses.

Somewhere along the line in the history of grass, two separate chemical pathways for photosynthesis evolved based on the way the plants process carbon dioxide. Before Minium, no one knew when this separation took place; but based on his work there, Thomasson became convinced that the two pathways were already in place seven million years ago and probably developed much earlier than that.

Harvey's exhaustive chronicle of grass included two pages dedicated to this ground-breaking work. The reference was discovered by Daryl Mergen, a 1991 graduate of the FHSU biology master's program who currently operates his own ecological consulting company in Colorado.

Mergen's wife received the The Story of Grass as a Christmas present from her sister in London, but neither she nor Mergen got a chance to read it until February, when they were traveling east on Interstate 70 from their home in Colorado Springs to a conference in Kansas City.

Somewhere out by Goodland, Thomasson said, Mergen reached page 51 in the book and was astounded to find a description of "Minium's Dead Cow Quarry," complete with a quote on the importance of the site by Thomasson himself.

Mergen, who was stopping in Hays to visit Thomasson, told his former professor about the reference. Thomasson was dumbfounded; he had no idea where Harvey had heard of his work or how he found the name "Minium's Dead Cow Quarry," which was used early in the dig but soon discarded in favor of a more respectable title.
Thomasson said it was sheer serendipity that Mergen found the reference, because Mergen served as crew chief for two years at the Minium site while working toward his degree.

"It's amazing that a person who'd been a crew chief up there was the first to read about it in this book," Thomasson said.

But that's not the only strange coincidence. The title of the book sounded familiar to Thomasson, so he dug through his bookshelves until he came upon the 1948 edition of Grass: The Yearbook of Agriculture. It contains an essay written by John James Ingalls, a U.S. senator from Kansas between 1873 and 1891. Ingalls was not a scientist, but he was a staunch defender of the beauty of the agricultural Midwest in an age of growing industrialization.

The essay, titled "In Praise of Blue Grass," contains a frequently-quoted passage beginning "Grass is the forgiveness of nature." It goes on to eloquently describe grass' usefulness in covering up ugliness and decay and holding "the earth in its place." Harvey borrowed Ingalls' passage as a title for his book, giving it yet another Kansas connection.

Minium excavation reports have been published in several scientific journals, including Science News and National Geographic Research, so Thomasson hypothesizes that Harvey learned about it through one of those venues.

"It's nice to get some international recognition citing the importance of the site up there," he said.

All this attention hasn't caused Thomasson's gaze to stray from his two primary foci: teaching and research. In fact, he said he hopes the national and international awareness of his work will help him with his current project, a grant proposal to the Hansen Foundation of Logan for funding to continue excavation at the Minium site.

The Minium dig provides the opportunity for biology students to get valuable experience in the field. While digging holes in the ground may seem a little low-tech for a professor on the cutting edge of technology, Thomasson emphasizes that technology should be seen as a supplement, not a replacement, for traditional methods of teaching.

"I don't ever want to see it come to the point where technology is all there is," he said. "Learning needs to be a hands-on experience."

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