Emory Report
June 25, 2007
Volume 59, Number 33

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June 25, 2007
A Natural Teacher

by beverly clark

Eloise Carter stands knee deep in Newton County’s Bear Creek, clearly in her element as she helps her students collect creek critters as part of a lesson in investigative learning.

“Wow, look at that! It’s so cool,” Carter exclaims with infectious enthusiasm, and then explains that the bug in the bucket tray is a “water boatman. See the two paddlers out on either side? Really neat.” It’s just one of many teachable moments in a typical day for the Oxford College biology professor and passionate ecologist.
As one of the leaders of the Oxford Institute for Environmental Education held every June, Carter has helped more than 250 educators become better, more engaging teachers by experiencing science at the hands-on level.

Her dedication to the award-winning program reflects a certain hard-wired ethos to throw open the windows to knowledge at every opportunity. But Carter, who grew up in Rome, Ga., as the daughter of an insurance salesman and a teacher, initially had no intentions of becoming one herself. But she is quick to clarify, “It never occurred to me that people didn’t have a responsibility to teach others.”

“Part of the payback of getting an education is you hold a responsibility to teach those skills and share that knowledge with others, whether they’re your clients, your co-workers, your family or your friends,” she says. “If you know something, you should share it with other people.”

Carter came to her calling when she began working in Emory’s biology department in the early 1970s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., Carter headed to Emory to work as a research technician in the labs of the University’s biochemistry department, where her ability to connect students with content was first noticed. She eventually began working on her master’s in biology, using the Emory staff courtesy scholarship, and then went on to get her Ph.D.

She spent several years as an instructor at Agnes Scott College while she was working on her doctorate at Emory. “Every day was two days, morning to night, but I loved what I was doing,” Carter recalls. She then joined Emory’s biology department as an assistant professor in 1984 and moved to Oxford in 1988.

“I love the biology department at Oxford because the mission here is excellence in undergraduate education, and that’s my passion,” Carter says. Overall, Carter has spent nearly 35 years at Emory as a student, staff member and now faculty at Oxford. “I’ve had every possible parking tag out there,” she says with a laugh.

Bilal Sarwari, an Oxford graduate and rising junior in Emory College who is working as an intern this summer in the environmental institute, is one of countless students Carter has inspired. His time as a student in Carter’s popular field botany course — where most of classroom and lab time is spent outdoors — “was the best learning experience in my life. She’s an incredible teacher,” he says.

“She doesn’t spoon feed you the information. She makes you experience it, and feed yourself the knowledge,” Sarwari says. “Before she would give you the identity of a plant or tree, she would make you look at it, examine it — smell it, touch it, taste it. Then she would tell you what it was. To this day, I can remember and identify all of the plants she taught us about.”

Over the years, Carter has received a host of teaching honors, including the University’s Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award. She also has been awarded the Meritorious Teaching Award by the Association of Southeastern Biologists, and has been recognized at Oxford with the Phi Theta Kappa Teaching Award and the Fleming Award for Excellence in Teaching.

She’s also taken her teaching knowledge into book form as the co-author, with Emory emeritus faculty member Judy Morgan, of “Investigating Biology,” now in its sixth edition.

“The manual provides a way to teach labs that are inquiry-driven, but manageable, and has helped change the way introductory biology is taught,” she says. Carter also is the co-author of “Guide to the Plants of Granite Outcrops” with Bill Murdy, dean emeritus at Oxford. The photographic field guide was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005 and reflects her research passion.

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Carter is now serving as project shepherd for Oxford’s massive science building initiative, which involves collaboration among faculty, staff, alumni and students to create “facilities for science in the 21st century.”

A space-needs assessment during Oxford’s master planning process found a 58 percent deficit in the amount of laboratory space Oxford should have for its students. In addition to larger classrooms and labs with state-of-the-art instrumentation and plenty of ventilation hoods, the building will offer undergraduate research labs and ample meeting space for faculty and students to gather and collaborate.

For now in Pierce Hall, where the science and math departments are housed, faculty have made creative use of space, such as converting storage closets to undergraduate research areas.

“Pierce has sort of become a sandbox for us, where we can experiment and practice methods and approaches to our teaching to see if it works, and if it’s something we want to incorporate in the new building,” Carter says.

In her spare time, Carter is an avid gardener who loves to cook up vegetarian meals for herself and her two daughters, Cyndi and Stefanie (Stefanie is a junior in the College). Carter also knits, and shares her skills with students and others at Oxford as leader of an informal knitting club. Her recreational activities, Carter points out, are plant based. “I just love plants,” she says. “Plants are the connection to everything: food, fiber, ecology, health, medicine, recreation.”