Eric Larsen, Senior Lecturer, Biological Sciences Collegiate DivisionBy Megan Seery
Medical Center Communications
Eric Larsen refuses to play the lottery at work. He prefers the name game.
“I don’t ask basic content questions because that’s playing the lottery,” said Larsen, Senior Lecturer in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division. “That’s not education. That’s just luck. They either know it or they don’t.”
Instead, he calls students by name in the middle of his mammalian and southwestern ecology lectures and then asks them “thought questions, answerable by anyone who pays attention.”
“I’ve tried to learn students’ names without them knowing how I did it,” Larsen said. “There’s a bit of mystique involved until I came to Chicago, where the students know I have their names and photos from the Registrar.” The technique works, he said, because he fell victim to it as an undergraduate at Kansas State University.
“I had a professor who called on us and asked questions that required you to think,” he said. “Nobody had any idea how he knew our names, and we spent a long time trying to figure that out. But we really paid attention because no one wanted to be that embarrassed person who had absolutely nothing to say.”
Part of the allure in engaging students during lecture is that Larsen finds it depressing if they seem bored by a subject he finds fascinating.
His interest in ecology developed at an early age, during family camping trips across the country that often involved mandatory visits to nearby museums. During one family vacation, Larsen’s parents brought their children to see an African elephant on display in the Main Hall of the Field Museum.
“It was so huge and magnificent, but today I think of it as being quite small,” he said.
Over the course of these trips, Larsen developed an interest in the biology of aquatic insects—a curiosity that led him to conduct fieldwork throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Europe and Central and South America.
“Basically, I splashed around in the water with a net collecting bugs,” he said.
But it was earning his master’s degree at Utah State University and his doctorate at the University of Arizona that enabled Larsen to hone skills in his true area of interest: desert ecology.
A postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa brought him back to the Midwest, where he now resides, following a teaching stint at Villanova University and his appointment to the Chicago faculty in 1999.
He returns annually to the Southwest to lead a two-week trek for biology majors that culminates with fieldwork in the Sonoran Desert.
Back on campus, Larsen draws students into the course material by pointing out when he finds an idea particularly interesting.
“I’ll be drawing on the marker board and say, ‘This is really cool,’ and from my peripheral vision, I can see them shift in their chairs,” he said.
Interspersing lectures with these “nuggets,” of interesting ecology information, helps to keep the classroom atmosphere fresh and active, he said.
Still, the name game remains the most consistent part of his teaching method, Larsen said, because knowing students’ names makes them feel like a faculty member cares enough about them to invest in their success on a personal level.
“What goes on in the classroom is personal,” he said. “We are starting a conversation, and it’s rude not to participate in a conversation when someone addresses you by name.”