Thank a Teacher Thursday: A Legacy of Passion for Teaching

03/06/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Jim Krupa is a professor of biology at the University of Kentucky (UK), member of the Kentucky Academy of Sciences, and 2012 recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers Evolution Education award. During his 25 years at UK, he has taught more than 23,000 students and I think it's safe to say that not a single one left his classroom without a solid grounding in the theory of evolution and its central role in biology. The moment I read his excellent article "Defending Darwin: Teaching Darwin on the front lines" in the March/April issue of Orion Magazine about his experiences at UK, I knew I had to interview him for "Thank a Teacher Thursday." His respect for teachers, and his recognition of the awesome responsibility they bear, was woven into virtually every paragraph.

From the University of Kentucky teachers who taught John Thomas Scopes in the 1920s (inspiring that soon-to-be most-famous-substitute-teacher-ever to teach evolution in Tennessee (and suffer the consequences)), to renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, who valued teaching non-majors biology at Harvard because "many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology," to his own teachers in high school and college, Krupa calls out teachers again and again for their role in inspiring, challenging, and encouraging students to engage critically with science.

Mind you, Krupa's first interaction with a teacher about evolution was hardly positive. His fourth grade music teacher, upon catching him reading a book about Darwin instead of singing, screamed at him, "The biggest mistake your parents ever made was not tying a rock around your neck and throwing you in the Missouri River!" At the time, Krupa had no idea what had provoked this extreme reaction.

After that inauspicious start, Krupa doesn't remember encountering any other anti-evolutionists during his early years, but he certainly remembers the teacher whose own enthusiasm for the subject proved infectious -- Creighton Steiner at Omaha Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska. "All the science teachers were amazing people," Jim told me, "I didn't realize how good they were at the time." But Steiner was special because of his gift for storytelling and his unabashed enthusiasm for biology. "He would get so worked up about human evolution that it was absolutely infectious. He was having a tremendous amount of fun, how could I not have fun?"

As Krupa recounts in the Orion article, Steiner did not shy away from discussing the antagonism that evolutionary biology engendered (and continues to engender) in so many religious people, and helped Krupa understand why some Christians reacted to evolution with such antipathy. Indeed Krupa finally found an explanation for his 4th grade teacher's violent outburst. Steiner argued that there was no need for religion and science to be at odds, a position that has stood Krupa in good stead as he has encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of students who enter his biology course with the idea that accepting evolution means rejecting God.

Krupa notes that Steiner went to great lengths to give his students a taste for fieldwork. "Every fall he'd load up a school bus with anyone who wanted to go and take them out to Genoa, Nebraska," a small town about 100 miles west of Omaha with a rich Native American history, to search for pottery shards. Now spending hours on a bus with a bunch of high school students, then keeping track of them while they dug around on the prairie, may not be anyone's idea of a good time, but Steiner did it year after year. In fact, one year, Steiner took Krupa with him to Genoa for a whole week, teaching him how to do anthropology fieldwork by day, and how to play pool and snooker in the evenings. Krupa regrets that it's getting harder and harder to take students outside because of the paperwork involved in getting the necessary permissions, but true to form, he has persisted. His most recent fieldwork-rich course offering reached maximum enrollment on the first day.

But perhaps what Krupa is most proud of is his persistence in making a course in evolution mandatory for all biology majors at the University of Kentucky. I have no doubt that each and every one of his own role models, from Scopes to Wilson to Steiner, would be proud.