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Creating an engaging learning environment

Award-winning wildlife professor says he enjoys students’ energy

 

There is no template for teaching in higher education.

Professors draw from myriad influences when they engage their own students. Past teachers and experiences in graduate school often top the list, but mixed in are subtle tweaks or experiments that engage with students in different ways.

For Gino D’Angelo, assistant professor of deer ecology and management at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, his experiences working in government, explaining material to a variety of professionals, underscores how he approaches teaching at the University of Georgia.

D’Angelo is this year’s recipient of Warnell’s Alumni Association Award for Early Career Teaching, and he says he’s humbled by the honor. D’Angelo came to Warnell in 2017, after spending a decade working as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as deer project leader at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

His approach to teaching involves getting to know his students, drawing them into a discussion, and challenging them once they’re engaged. And, he adds, there might be something to it. While one class he teaches is a requirement, another is an elective—and he often sees former students return to take it.

“Over my years in government, I worked with hundreds of techs, biologists and administrators. And I found that, first, if I could meet with people on a personal level, if they would let me, that was a good starting point,” says D’Angelo. “And then, understanding that people have different learning styles, I’d have to adapt pretty quickly. Sometimes, you have to adapt on the fly.”

Speaking to a room of administrators or working one-on-one with a biologist, D’Angelo would have to convey similar information in different ways. These days, he uses the same principles in the classroom.

Sometimes that’s more difficult, especially when the class tops 100 students. But D’Angelo isn’t a stand-up-at-the-front-of-the-room kind of teacher. Instead, he’s working the room, walking among students and engaging with smaller groups, drawing them out.

“If you can engage with them—especially certain factions in the room, not just the people in front—I can get to know people and draw them in,” he says. “If I can get students to share their perspective, I can get their peers to chime in as well. Once you get them moving, they all start to chime in. That’s when they can share their perspectives.”

That’s when the magic happens, says D’Angelo. While a professor has one viewpoint, a student is likely to have a different opinion. And other students are likely to relate to them.

D’Angelo does have one overall requirement of his students, though: He needs their energy.

As much as he enjoys teaching, D’Angelo admits, it can be exhausting. He classifies himself as an introvert, but he can bring energy to the classroom as long as his students incorporate theirs as well.

If they’re present and engaged, he promises, it will be worth their while.

“I’ve been learning what works and what doesn’t, and I adapt on the fly. But I require those students to engage me. I can’t just talk to a room of blank faces, and they know that,” he says. “I think they appreciate that.”

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