THERE'S AN 800-POUND GORILLA IN THE CLASSROOM
Teaching Award Winner Inspired by Goodall
- By Cheryl Dorschner
"When people joke about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, they’re not kidding when it comes to Pat Erickson’s classes. In a department renowned for its domestic livestock and equestrian programs, she teaches about pets and exotic zoo animals. And she’s an unstoppable force when it comes to making the classroom come alive, taking the classroom on the road, mentoring and exhibiting boundless energy," Tom Vogelmann told a crowd that filled UVM's Benedict Auditorium on April 20.
Vogelmann, dean of UVM's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), was leading its Honors Day program, at which 85 students received some 40 different awards – many receiving several awards. Near the end of the ceremonies, UVM Proctor Maple Research Center facilities coordinator Brian Stowe received the 2012 Outstanding Staff Award, and Patricia Fobare Erickson received the 31st Joseph E. Carrigan Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. She is a senior lecturer in the department of animal science.
Professor Emeritus Lyn Carew described Erickson's as a “grab-you-by-the-collar style of teaching.”
- She exposes students to live pet emergencies to teach them how to safely approach wounded animals, observe dehydrated animals and take temperatures, pulses and measure respiration. “Students’ enthusiasm and self-confidence zoom forward,” says Carew.
- Aaron Thibault '10 described Erickson “standing in the corner of the room for a solid five minutes, not saying a word except for grunts and stomps, to demonstrate the physical signs of a horse with rabies.”
- Other students report that when she gives mock interviews to senior pre-veterinary students, she “changes her appearance, voice and demeanor to impersonate various types of board members. Students said they were “scared by the experience but delighted to learn what to expect.”
What Pat Erickson can’t accomplish in the classroom, she accomplishes in the world. Erickson's courses take students to the Adirondack Park to learn about conservation, to the Bronx Zoo to understand gorilla behavior, to New England Aquarium to help endangered sea turtles, to the Wolf and Wild Canid Sanctuary to meet wolves and to personally meet Jane Goodall. In courses that she co-teaches in the Domincan Republic, over the years students have constructed a community center, health clinic, literacy center and several homes. They have provided veterinary assistance and HIV/AIDS education.
No wonder her courses are so popular.
Erickson's own career is a bit unorthodox by traditional university standards. In a nomination letter for the teaching award, Allison Prokop '10, related the quick life summary that Erickson told in class: “She was a singer in a band, volunteered at a zoo, worked with Jane Goodall, who inspired her and encouraged her to enroll in veterinary school.”
Three years after being a zookeeper and research assistant at the Oregon Zoo, in 1989, Erickson earned an associate’s degree in math and science from North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, NY. Her bachelor’s degree in animal science and her doctorate of veterinary medicine, in 1992 and 1997, are from Cornell University.
Pat Erickson came to UVM in 2002. Over the past 10 years, she has developed 11 courses, advises 65 students and two UVM clubs. For seven consecutive years Erickson received the UVM Senior Student Faculty Recognition Award. In 2006, she received the National Association of College Teachers of Agriculture Teaching Award of Merit. In 2007, she was nominated as a UVM Outstanding Service Learning Faculty. In 2008, Erickson received the University’s high accolade – the Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award. The UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences 2012 Carrigan Teaching Award is accompanied by a $2,000 cash award and $500 to support teaching improvement and innovation.
In the community, Erickson has been a volunteer veterinarian for the Humane Society of Chittenden County and is active on the Conservation and Research Foundation board and many other professional associations. In summers she has taught for Envirovet, a program spearheaded by the University of California at Davis that is located in Yulee, Florida. Last year, while on sabbatical, she taught in Tanzania, Africa. Also in summers she practices veterinary medicine in her home town of Saranac Lake, NY. Her prior work history includes many stints as a vet, research and teaching assistant and zookeeper – all experiences and connections that she continues to use in teaching and whose doors seem to be open to her and her students.
These same extensive contacts enable Erickson to identify outstanding internships and study-abroad experiences for CALS students. Likewise, her students graduate to become veterinarians; medical, law and graduate students; zookeepers; dolphin trainers; wildlife advocates; humane society directors and more – and these alumni are great resources for the next batch of UVM students under Erickson's care.
Of the dozens of former students who recommended Erickson for the Carrigan teaching award, many of them described themselves as initially lost, discouraged or full of self-doubt. They admire her because she is an accomplished teacher, advisor, practicing veterinarian, practicing humanitarian and she never lets go of these students. After four years of her unwavering attention and dedication, they succeed and, as Tanya Cramoy '05 and others have said, “seven years later she still keeps an eye on me!” Allison Prokop '10, summed it up like this: “Her overwhelming desire to help others made her my role model, my mentor, my own Jane Goodall.”