Dr. Alan Sowards, elementary education science professor, uses animals like Amir, a prairie dog, to bring science to life at Stephen F. Austin State University. In Sowards' science methods course, early childhood through sixth grade education majors learn how to incorporate animals into their lesson plans to help teach science.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas - With two tarantulas, a tree frog, Bess beetles, millipedes, a prairie dog and a 175-gallon manmade wetland complete with red-eared turtles, crayfish and Gambusia fish, Dr. Alan Sowards' classroom at Stephen F. Austin State University is anything but typical.

As an elementary education science professor at SFA, Sowards incorporates animals to make his lessons come alive - literally.

"I support including live animals in the classroom because observing and working with animals firsthand can spark students' interest in science, as well as a general respect for life, while reinforcing key science concepts," Sowards said.

In his science methods course, Sowards prepares the next generation of elementary science teachers.

Students learn the importance of safety when caring for live animals in the classroom and how to apply these safety guidelines in their own classrooms.

Sowards explained studies show the presence of animals tends to lessen tension in the classroom. He added a pet increases sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others - for both animals and humans. In addition to giving students exposure to animals, classroom pets help instill a sense of responsibility and respect for life.

"I have learned that having live animals in the classroom teaches students responsibility and can create curiosity about animals," said Jessica Armstrong, senior early childhood through sixth grade education major from Mount Pleasant.

A recent project tasked students with raising Painted Lady Butterflies. Students researched the life cycle of the butterfly, kept a daily journal and constructed butterfly habitats.

"When students see something in person and experience a lesson, they tend to remember it better," Armstrong said. "In Dr. Sowards' class, we are getting hands-on experience and learning how to apply similar teaching methods in our future classrooms."