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Feature

Randy Moore.

Biology professor Randy Moore

U professor wins national award for excellence in biology education

With 'just a little effort,' Randy Moore turns students on to the excitement of biology--and belonging

By Deane Morrison

Published on September 27, 2005

The biology class has just started, and several students have their heads stuck in a newspaper, too busy with the sports pages to listen to their professor. But he is ready for them. "Look around you," he tells the students. "At some point in their lives, half the men in this room and one-third of the women will be told by a doctor, 'You have cancer.'" The students start checking out their neighbors. It soon dawns on them that their own chances of avoiding cancer are no better than two in three. Down go the newspapers, up go the eyes. Randy Moore, a biology professor in General College, has them in the palm of his hand as he tells them what's known about the causes of cancer and how they can lessen their odds of getting it. Suddenly, the abstract world of cell division has become real and personal to the students, and they want to know more.

Sometimes that means visiting students in the hospital, going to a funeral with them, or even bailing them out of jail. When the students realize that Moore cares about them, will go out of his way for them, and wants them to do well, they respond.

Such a performance is just the tip of the iceberg for Moore, an outstanding teacher by any measure. On October 8, he will receive the highest award any biology teacher can aspire to: an honorary membership in the 8,600-member National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), to be conferred during the organization's meeting in Milwaukee. Previous winners include such luminaries as genetics pioneer James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame) and the late evolutionist Stephen J. Gould. Reaching those students who want to learn but need that one extra little push motivates Moore to do his utmost for them. "For students who come to class and want their money's worth, I try to give them more than their money's worth. One of my jobs is to help them take advantage of the University of Minnesota," he says. Sometimes that means visiting students in the hospital, going to a funeral with them, or even bailing them out of jail. When the students realize that Moore cares about them, will go out of his way for them, and wants them to do well, they respond. "The student I bailed out of jail still stays in touch with me. His grades went up after [that incident]," says Moore. "My students have gone to graduate school, medical school, dental school, law school, and similar careers. I'm close to many of them." A Texan by birth, Moore was poised to enter medical school as he embarked on his last semester at Texas A&M. But a major glitch in scheduling landed him in a plant physiology course with charismatic professor Wayne Jordan. Moore found himself infected with Jordan's enthusiasm and was keen to love a subject with the same passion that Jordan radiated. Then Jordan did something that really hit home. "I was in the hospital, and he came to see me," Moore recalls. "It still affects me. It showed me that with just a little effort, you can have a huge impact." To this day, Moore often thinks about Jordan before teaching a class and tries to do for his students what Jordan did for him. Moore cancelled his medical school plans and eventually earned a doctorate in plant development at UCLA. He went on to a series of professorships, deanships, and vice presidencies at such institutions as Baylor University, Wright State University, the University of Akron, and the University of Louisville. At both Baylor and Wright State, he was voted the most outstanding faculty member. Moore has written or co-written many books, including the top-selling biology lab manual. He has studied such topics as why plant roots grow down while stems grow up, and has even flown experiments aboard the space shuttle to find out. He also edited the journal American Biology Teacher for 19 years, a service that helped earn his upcoming NABT award. "Not only did you shape the journal into the best in the field, in a very real sense you shaped biology education at the same time," wrote NABT Executive Director Wayne W. Carley in a letter to Moore. "Your own writings, in books, editorial and articles, have always challenged us to think in new ways and re-examine old beliefs." Besides his general biology course, Moore teaches a College of Liberal Arts seminar on the evolution vs. creationism controversy. Employing expert questioning, he prompts students on the many sides of the issue, especially those on the extremes, to think hard about what they believe or accept and why. When Moore was in the process of being hired by General College, Jay Hatch, an associate professor of biological sciences in GC, at first wondered, "Why does a big-time guy want to come here?" The answer, says Hatch, is that in previous teaching jobs, Moore had spent many years teaching undergraduates who weren't biology majors and were not expected to do well. But in his administrative jobs, Moore had kept teaching and trying to deal with students who were having difficulties, but his work hadn't been valued or rewarded [by the institution.] Moore discovered that kind of teaching was valued here and he wanted to come, says Hatch. "He starts off class with something he's found, like a jar of peanut butter, a candy wrapper or a leaf turning color," Hatch says. "He helps make biology something students can relate to. I think students appreciate that he treats them with the respect they're due."

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