From doubter to advocate

Murray Itzkowitz, department chair and professor of biological sciences, is mentoring students for the second summer in Lehigh’s Mountaintop program. Once wondering if students “would just sit around” during this unique learning environment, he shares what has changed his mind and why he thinks this model should be where the future of education is headed.

Itzkowitz has been studying the endangered Leon Springs Desert Pupfish for the past 15 years in its native West Texas, including undergraduate and graduate students to complete on-site research. Even though he will return to Texas, Itzkowitz brought the study to Lehigh last summer.

“Endangered species are hard to work with. There is a lot of red tape that protects them. If you cannot do experiments, you haven’t progressed very far,” said Itzkowitz. “I can’t use the pupfish in this research because there are dozens of them, not millions. If I did the experiment, I would be taking them out of their natural habitat or destroying parts of the habitat, and you cannot do that. Federal regulations stop that from happening.”

Assimilating the environment of the pupfish at Mountaintop and using the closely related and abundant Sheepshead Minnow as the test subject, he and nine students are furthering his work on ways to conserve the pupfish in their natural habitat. Michael Kuchka, associate professor of biological sciences, is co-mentoring the Mountaintop project with Itzkowitz.

How have your expectations as a professor been exceeded with Mountaintop?

This was the most enjoyable educational experience that I have ever had. I said it last year, and I am saying it again: It is just an amazing thing that Lehigh has come up with in the Mountaintop program. The fact that it fits into the direction that the biological sciences department is going in terms of trying to get students closer to start doing research earlier in their career is wonderful.

Going into the first summer of Mountaintop, I figured the students would sit there and wait for me to tell them what to do. That has not happened either summer. I thought I would be very frustrated that they would not want to do what I thought would be interesting. I found out that they were more interested than even I am. They would put any amount of effort required to do the project, because they are vested into it.

What are the differences in how students work at Mountaintop vs. a traditional campus lab or in the field?

I see Mountaintop as where the structure of education falls out. In a typical classroom lab or when an undergraduate is involved in traditional faculty research, the student is following clearly defined rules.

With the pupfish project, this educational experience is so unique. My job is to frame the topic in such a way that students feel that they can be creative within it. And not only feel to be creative, but also, they have to be able to ask questions that they feel are unique. They can then use their expertise that they have gained through understanding science to go further with it.

It is one thing for me to say that this is an important project, and that I am dealing with conservation, and these fish are important. It is another thing for these students to take ownership of it. They need to do a lot of work and the driving spirit behind that is themselves as a group. They had to work together to make sure they held each other responsible.

Last summer, I was placed in a position that I thought was profound. I had never been put in a situation where I could have undergraduates [in a research setting] who have not completed very many courses and have them quickly become sophisticated and become almost colleagues.

How do you feel the Mountaintop Experience will prepare students for life?

In my view, Mountaintop is not about whether they learned what I told them to learn. Instead, it is whether they can use this experience to be independently creative later on. Can they use this education that I am trying to give them for experiences they haven’t yet encountered?

In the far distant future after graduation, I would think that the students from my Mountaintop group would fit into any organization that requires this kind of creative interaction. My students are super articulate with each other and with me. They speak, interact, negotiate, and are assertive in explaining their ideas. I find that they actually listen to each other and not just wait for it to be their turn to talk. They really care what other people are thinking.

So at the end of this experience, I think these students, whether if they are in business, talking to clients, or in a pre-med program, can use this kind of interaction that is not easy to teach in a regular classroom.

Why be a Mountaintop faculty mentor?

I like interacting with students and enjoy being a part of their education. I am not so happy about lecturing. I am not so happy about giving grades. The students are being forced to think about grades all the time. I find that puts me further away from the way I want to interact with young people.

At Mountaintop, I was less of a gatekeeper of grades and more of a person who had more experience. I wasn’t someone who was “me against them,” and if you wanted the “A,” you had to act a certain way. I felt that it was an extremely creative experience for them, and I really enjoyed being around them.

In this case, I watched the students, and they were in control, and they were doing extremely well. I was amazed at how much time they spent on the project, how much time they spent organizing it.

The data these students are collecting is AMAZING with capital letters. I want to be part of this science. It is an incredible, exciting thing to me.

Story by Dawn Thren

Photos by Christa Neu