Students ‘buggy’ for his classes

“Today is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I received my little friend Simon. I can’t stop staring at him. I wonder how this little guy will grow…”

So begins the tobacco hornworm larva-rearing journal of a typical student in Richard Zack’s Entomology 101 class, “Insects and People.” From utterly engaging Powerpoint presentations to the hugely popular insect barbecue, Zack has used his unconventional teaching methods to stimulate and engage WSU students from all fields of study.

Along the way, having also won the respect of his colleagues as an associate professor in entomology, he has

garnered the Marian E. Smith Faculty Achievement Award for 2004. This award is reserved for faculty members who have made unusually significant and meritorious achievements in teaching during the previous academic year. The emphasis is on successful and innovative instruction methods, such as stimulating students to learn, enthusiasm for teaching, communication and organizational skills, concern for students, and activities in support of teaching, such as advising and curriculum development.

Among those who served as a reference for Zack was Robert Sites, professor of entomology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Perhaps the greatest attribute that Rich brings to the classroom is his enthusiasm, genuine concern for students and love of teaching at all levels from preschool to graduate,” said Sites.Zack, who has been in entomology at WSU for more than 25 years, only began teaching about seven years ago. He eventually grew tired of carrying around boxes of slides and giving traditional exams; so, with input from former students and colleagues, he came up with innovative ways to enhance the classroom experience for his students.

All of his slide shows were transferred to Powerpoint presentations and made available on the Web. Instead of the traditional midterm and final exams, he switched to a weekly quiz format including hands-on assignments, such as detailing grasshopper anatomy or participating in the children’s insect literature project.

“The students have enjoyed the changes for the most part,” Zack said. “The course has grown a lot — to 176 students — so it’s hard to do a lot of other things, but I tried to incorporate interesting activities so it would be more than just them sitting in a room taking notes.

“For example, the insect luncheon (think cricket tacos and grub cookies) is now held in the CUB and has become an annual event that students may invite their friends to.”

Diana Johnson, a former teaching assistant for Zack, said, “Before I took on the role of TA, I was aware of the cult-like popularity of ‘Insects and People’ — word-of-mouth has created an underground sensation. Despite this knowledge, I still found myself in awe of Dr. Zack’s energy and enthusiasm. His teaching style is by far the best that I have ever witnessed. As a future teacher, I hope to assimilate his characteristics.”

Most of Zack’s students are not science majors but take the class to fulfill a general university requirement. “It’s a chance for me to teach students something they know nothing about and may never come into contact with again,” Zack said. “I really enjoy the teaching.”

And his methods have made an impact. One former student, Jordan Longacre, wrote in his nomination letter: “Overall, Professor Zack proved to be one who truly exemplifies ‘World Class. Face to Face.’

“Because of his excellence in communicating the material to us, the information was not easily forgotten, and I still can recall almost everything that he taught us. He was very personable and showed a great deal of concern for all of his students. Professor Zack treated us with respect and has truly been an inspiration.”

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